Five wins, zero losses; ranked 24th in the AP poll. Those are things that are not taken lightly in the Northwestern community. There is irrational excitement in Evanston. Can it last?
At Northwestern, we have become programmed to believe things are going to unravel as soon as we have a glimmer of hope. So, as the Wildcats have begun to garner some rare national attention and even some crazy talk of a Big Ten title, we are all kind of savoring the moment, hoping that we can somehow keep this fortuitous run going, yet expecting the worst to happen at the same time. Northwestern has come so close to ending the current 64 year bowl victory draught the past four years under Coach Pat Fitzgerald, but have always found a way to lose the game and keep the infamous streak alive. Additionally, the last four times we thought the program had “arrived” as a ranked team, it was followed up right away with a loss.
As one can see, this upcoming game for the Wildcats against a resurgent Penn State squad in Happy Valley is not just an ordinary game. This is the ‘Cats first chance to truly prove they are for real with a road win against a quality opponent in conference.
The bar was set low for the Wildcats this season with most pundits predicting in the five to seven win range, but now with the Big Ten having a down year and the Wildcats off to a hot start aided by a favorable schedule, there are dreams of heading into the Nebraska match up 7-0 (having Minnesota on the slate next weekend) with a legitimate chance to win the Legends division.
Now, let’s not get too carried away as this is still Northwestern, but some unusual things seem to be happening. First of all, the starting quarterback coming into the season, Kain Colter, essentially ignited a quarterback controversy (in the media) by unselfishly taking himself out of the opener against Syracuse because he thought his back-up gave the team a better chance to win due to Colter’s injury condition. From there, back-up Trevor Siemian led the game-winning drive and the two quarterbacks have basically been splitting the snaps since then with no ego or alpha-dog issue in sight. Then last week, Siemian got his first career start at quarterback with Colter starting in the slot at wide receiver, where we hadn’t seen him since last season. How did that turn out? Colter only caught nine passes for 131 yards and ran for 164 yards as an option/zone-read QB, while Siemian threw for over 300 yards in the win over Indiana. Somehow Coach Fitz’ has pushed all the right buttons using the two-quarterback system without ruffling any feathers in the locker room where Colter is one of the captains.
The most hyped guy coming into the season was wide receiver and USC transfer, Kyle Prater. If the Wildcats were to make any noise this year, most thought Prater would have to be the second coming of D’Wayne Bates. However, Prater does not start and he has made almost no impact on the field, but has been a good soldier. The ‘Cats are 5-0 with Prater registering five total catches. Who saw that coming?
Moreover, the Wildcats haven’t had an explosive running game since Tyrell Sutton’s last season in 2008 and this was not supposed to be the year that changed. However, Venric Mark has proven he is more than just a special teamer ripping off big runs while averaging 108.6 yards per game on the ground. Last year’s starter, Mike Trumpy, has also begun to regain his form after his ACL tear in 2011 as an in-between the tackles runner to compliment the speedy Mark.
Probably the biggest surprise of the season is that the well-documented porous defense has been downright competent since the Syracuse game, but the question is if they can hold up once the level of competition rises.
I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention the exterior factors that are giving a different feel at Northwestern. The move to Under Armour and the reclamation of the “Northwestern Stripe” has given us an identity and pride that was missing previously. Furthermore, Athletic Director, Jim Phillips, has created a buzz around the Wildcats coining the slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” last year that has correlated with higher attendance along with announcing the confirmation of the new facilities plan a few weeks ago. I am not saying these things are adding wins on the field right now, but for a fan base that has been starved for attention and success, there is more confidence now than ever.
Having said that, we all fear that Penn State quarterback, Matt McGloin, will light up the much-maligned Wildcat secondary as he has done in the past for the favored Nittany Lions and Northwestern will go back to being irrelevant in the college football world.
There is cautious optimism as a collective Northwestern fan base. We have a chance and hope that we can remain relevant for one more week, and as a fan that is all you can ask for.