Northwestern University is known for many things: its near-Ivy League admission standards, the small-town charm of Evanston, Ill., and a beautiful campus to name a few, but being a top 25 football program is not one of them.
With a 5-0 start to the season after a recent 44-29 victory over Indiana (2-2), the Wildcat name enters the field of college football’s top teams. The program emerged in both the AP and Coaches Top 25 polls this week, at No. 24 and 22, respectively. This is the first time the team has has been ranked since 2008. Though the Wildcats by no means give Alabama a run for their money, the team deserves the recognition and some attention for its success thus far.
After a late-touchdown win in its first game against Syracuse (1-3), Northwestern handed an SEC opponent a loss in Week 2, defeating a decent Vanderbilt (1-3) team. The Wildcats outscored Vandy 17-3 in the fourth quarter, a good sign for a team that typically allows opponents back into the game after taking an early lead. The Wildcats finished out their nonconference play with home wins over Boston College (1-3) and South Dakota (2-2).
I realize these teams, with the exception of Vanderbilt, are not high-caliber competition. However, when you consider the Big Ten is 6-9 against teams from other BCS automatic-qualifying conferences and three of those wins belong to Northwestern, it sounds pretty good.
Starting out Big Ten play against an Indiana team that went 1-11 last year doesn’t help improve the quality of programs this team has beaten, but looking at what Northwestern has done on the field should turn a few heads.
What is brewing just north of Chicago is not the standard look of a football team. But uniqueness is a trait that can separate the good from the best. I am not saying this Wildcat team is close to being the best, but it has an X factor.
Which brings me to the curious case of Kain Colter.
I must state I do not follow Wildcat football religiously, so when I first started to research this Colter kid, I had to do a double take to make sure I was in fact seeing the same player throw, run and catch the ball.
The junior quarterback’s performance that encompassed all three of these roles against the Hoosiers was a key element to setting a school record of 704 total offensive yards. Colter attempted just three passes in the game, one of which was an interception. But running for 161 yards and four touchdowns, as well as racking up 131 receiving yards off nine passes, made up for that error.
While Colter’s main role was at quarterback in previous games, head coach Pat Fitzgerald changed things up, and the team did not skip a beat. Colter’s performance Saturday earned him co-offensive Big Ten Player of the Week with Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. His dynamic ability on the field and his abilities need to be given more attention.
If Northwestern keeps winning, I think that will happen.
A win Saturday against Penn State will be a good indicator of whether this team is going to stay near the top of the Big Ten. With games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State remaining on the schedule, Saturday is a must-win. I don’t expect the Wildcats to make it through the Big Ten untouched, but those three matchups down the road are winnable games with the way this team has been playing.
Offensively, Northwestern has the talent, as well as adaptability, and that will be its strength entering the rest of its games.
The questions surround the play of the team’s defense. The Wildcats have allowed their opponents too much time in the pocket, something their future Big Ten opponents will punish them for if the defensive line does not improve its pass rush performance.
Historically, what plagues this team is not being able to come up with wins later in the season. To see this, look no further than the Wildcats’ bowl history. The program earned a spot in a bowl game the last four seasons and has appeared in 10 bowl games in the program’s history. Not a bad number, but what is dreadful to look at are the outcomes. Northwestern is currently tied for the longest losing streak with nine straight losses in bowl games. Ouch.
Could this be the year the trend ends? I like Colter, and I like the players that surround him. This season, we have seen Big Ten teams with a single player in the spotlight not performing so far this season. For example: Denard Robinson and Michigan, Le’Veon Bell and Michigan State and, though I hate to say it, Montee Ball and Wisconsin. If you look at No. 1 Alabama or No. 2 Oregon, you see an all-around great team before you name a single star player. I see a similar situation at Northwestern. Colter is its best player, but his multiple talents allow Fitzgerald to use his other top players, namely quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark.
I see a win for the Wildcats in University Park Saturday, and a top two finish in the Legends Division is very possible if this happens.