It turns out Northwestern doesn’t have to go overtime to get a win in the Big Ten.
The 23-13 victory over Purdue on Saturday night was your standard, garden-variety four-quarter game that moved along at a fairly brisk pace, a pleasant revelation for those braving the cold at Ryan Field.
But after playing overtime games in each of the three previous games, the Wildcats didn’t mind getting things taken care of in the requisite amount of time.
“I just want to win,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, we’ve been working hard for (TV) ratings here the last few weeks.”
Of course, Fitzgerald was just having a little fun. That’s easy to do after a win. But it’s even easier to do when your team is on a roll, something Northwestern absolutely is after winning its fifth straight.
It seems like ancient history when the Wildcats opened Big Ten play with back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, not looking terribly competitive against the Nittany Lions. That loss to Penn State was the third in four weeks with a blowout loss at Duke mixed in, as well.
Needless to say, confidence was not soaring for the Wildcats. But a trip to play a decimated Maryland team came next before the three-game overtime run that included big wins over Iowa and Michigan State and now Northwestern is playing like the team many expected would push Wisconsin for the top spot in the Big Ten West.
“It feels really good. To win five straight in the Big Ten against the teams we’ve played is pretty impressive,” said quarterback Clayton Thorson, who threw for two TDs against Purdue. “I’m really proud of these guys. It’s been a fun stretch of games. It’s been a fun stretch of games with these guys, with these seniors. We were talking about it earlier today and last night, but we only got these last two weeks and then a bowl game with this team. This group of guys is pretty special. It’s fun. It’s fun to win, it’s much more fun to win than lose.”
The slate of teams to face in the West makes that fun more possible. It’s hard to argue that. But it’s also not like just showing up and getting a win. The Iowa and Michigan State victories in the stretch prove that.
And winning in the Big Ten is nothing to take lightly. The College Football Playoff Committee may not buy it as they continue to discredit Wisconsin’s unbeaten record, but running off five straight — something Fitzgerald has done five times in his tenure — isn’t exactly simple.
Northwestern has done it and with Minnesota and Illinois left, there’s no reason to think it won’t extend two more games
“Anybody can win on any given Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “As a fan, that would be what would be fun to me. Just watching the competitive nature of our league top to bottom right now. And it’s hard to win, especially to win conference games, so I’m proud of our guys, without a doubt. They’re putting in the work and they’re getting the return on the investment.”
It hasn’t come easy, but Indiana finally got its first Big Ten win by beating Illinois and in the process, got the first conference victory for coach Tom Allen.
“The first win, the first whatever it is, is always special,” Allen said. “One I'll always remember.”
The Hoosiers had spent the bulk of the season playing Big Ten teams tough only to come up short in the end. And it came against some of the best as they suffered back-to-back one-score losses to Michigan and Michigan State and hung close with Wisconsin through three quarters. Only a loss to Maryland would be considered a bad one.
But the gauntlet came to an end Saturday as Richard Lagow threw for 289 yards and two TDs while the defense sacked Illinois 10 times and held the Fighting Illini to 72 yards of total offense in the first half.
“Just really encouraged by our kids,” Allen said. “We stayed the course and the kids were rewarded for being very resilient. Everybody's been asking about how the guys are doing. And you know what? They believe. They believe in themselves and believe in what we're doing.But you need to win.
“That makes you feel different, when all that hard work comes to fruition and has you feeling like you're moving in the right direction.”
With Rutgers and Purdue left, the winning might not be done.
Around the Big Ten
■ Wisconsin continues to cruise along wondering if anyone outside of Madison will care the Badgers haven’t lost. The latest victim was Iowa, the darling of the conference after last week’s whipping of Ohio State. That was never in the cards this time as the Badgers forced four turnovers and locked up a spot in the Big Ten chhampionship.
■ Penn State kept its slim hopes in the East alive by cruising past Rutgers. In the win, quarterback Trace McSorley became Penn State’s career leader in touchdowns with 68.
■ Mike Riley is in big trouble at Nebraska after the Cornhuskers lost for the fourth time in five games, this time getting destroyed on the road by Minnesota. It’s hard to see where another win comes for the Huskers, who face Penn State and Iowa to close the season, one that can seem to end fast enough.