Week four is in the books and Northwestern is undefeated. Check out our final thoughts on the Wildcats’ win, our look around the Big Ten and our preview of next week.
Final thoughts on NU's win over Indiana
Ibraheim Campbell is the defense’s most important player
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
When safety Ibraheim Campbell went down with an undisclosed injury in the second quarter, few believed his absence would alter the outcome in a game where Northwestern had so convincingly overwhelmed Indiana. But soon after halftime, the Hoosiers exploited NU’s secondary, which, without Campbell, fielded zero returning starters. True freshman Traveon Henry took over for Campbell and played well in his first extended stint of game action, but the lack of communication and unity in the defensive backfield was plain and it nearly cost the Wildcats what should have been an easy victory.
Without Campbell, the unquestioned leader in the back end of the defense, breakdowns were frequent, blown assignments numerous. Hoosiers quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld found holes in coverage, and connected with IU receivers running through and around those holes. It wasn’t just the lack of Campbell’s tackling, coverage and run defense that hurt the Wildcats. It was his leadership, and a host of other intangible qualities that all to often get overlooked. Over the offseason, following the departures of Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin to graduation, Campbell talked about taking on a larger leadership role. So far, he’s done exactly that and then some. His presence is indispensable, and Saturday was proof enough of the fact. The good news is Pat Fitzgerald said Campbell said he was feeling ok after the game. NU will need him against Penn State next week.
Is this team different?
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Over the last couple weeks, Northwestern fans were openly frustrated that their team wasn't ranked. They pointed to the three wins over BCS conference teams, the improved defense and the stellar offense. Now, after five weeks, NU is ranked, but do the Wildcats deserve it? Based on their body of work compared to the body of work of most teams around them, yes they do. However, Pat Fitzgerald always says that teams shouldn't be ranked until late October, and he's right. We don't know enough about any team to properly rank them yet, and that certainly holds true for Northwestern.
Yes, the wins over Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College are more impressive than wins over a bunch of Sun Belt teams, but those three are hardly juggernauts. This is still a largely unproven team and one that certainly isn't in uncharted waters. Fitzgerald's teams have been ranked before and they've been 5-0. Considering who NU beat to get here, 5-0 isn't a surprise at all. We don't know if this team is deserving of a top 25 spot, nor do we know if it's really a Legends Division contender. We'll know after next Saturday. Can the defense step up against the Penn State offense? Can NU get a road win in a tough environment? We still don't know, but we will at this time next week. Next week, we'll know if this team is truly special, or merely good.
Northwestern has never started 6-0 under Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has never beaten Penn State. The Wildcats have never won as a ranked team under Fitzgerald. Is this team different? We'll find out soon enough.
Around the Big Ten
So much for Michigan State’s national championship game aspirations
by Chris Johnson
Throughout the offseason I tried to make the case that Michigan State could make a legitimate run at the BCS National Championship game. Of all the Big Ten contenders – By my vague preseason standards, there were four: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska – the Spartans appeared the best-equipped to represent the Big Ten on the grandest national stage college football has to offer. With eight starters returning to a star-studded defense, plus a quarterback who, despite not having any game experience, had the benefit of three years of Kirk Cousins apprenticeship, MSU, in short, looked the part.
This was the year the Spartans would bypass Pasadena and head off to SEC country for a shot at the national championship. This was the year where everything could have and should have broken just right for the green and white. But after a 3-2 start, with home losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, along with unimpressive victories over Boise State and Eastern Michigan, Michigan State clearly doesn’t have what it takes to reach my predicted destination. One of my greatest concerns with this team was that the offense, after losing star receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, couldn’t score enough points to keep up with other explosive offensive teams. My fear has been realized. No matter how strong their defense, Michigan State cannot win games by scoring under 20 points. It has scored a combined 19 points in its two losses. That’s just not going to cut it, not if you want a spot in the BCS.
Is Nebraska the Legends Division favorite?
by Kevin Trahan
There's a lot of fuss about Nebraska suddenly being the creme of the crop in the Legends Division. I'm sorry, but really? The same Nebraska team that has made its living beating up on 0-4 Southern Miss, 2-3 Arkansas State, FCS Idaho State and depleted Wisconsin? The same Nebraska team that lost at UCLA earlier this year? Of course, the comeback against Wisconsin was impressive, because the Badgers still have talent, but to call this team the favorite in the Legends Division is mind-boggling.
The Cornhuskers have too many problems to be considered a favorite. A contender? Sure, but not a favorite. The defense has been atrocious, and the secondary was a problem again on Saturday, letting a number of wide open Badgers receivers get behind the defense. Wisconsin's offense wasn't good enough to seal the deal, but Nebraska's tendency to give up big plays has to be concerning. The offense certainly has firepower, starting with the outstanding running back duo of Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead. However, the offense goes as the quarterback goes, and quarterback Taylor Martinez is still wildly inconsistent. This team certainly has the talent to win the Legends Division, but so do Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern. Nothing about Huskers looks like a favorite right now, except their ranking.
Around the Big Ten: Recapping three key games
by Chris Johnson
(12) Ohio State 17, Michigan State 13 – So much for Urban Meyer’s first year on the job entailing a transition period. The Buckeyes, by all accounts, have cemented their status as the best team in the Big Ten. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller has acquitted himself well in Meyer’s uptempo system, which suits Miller’s dual-threat skill set perfectly. But the Buckeyes defense was the story in this one. More specifically, the remarkable job it did on Spartans tailback Le’Veon Bell, who finished with just 45 yards on 17 carries. With Bell ineffective, it was incumbent upon Andrew Maxwell to carry the offense. He completed just 22 of 24 passes for one touchdown. That’s not nearly sufficient against an inspired Buckeyes outfit that, despite being ineligible for postseason play, won’t lack for energy or enthusiasm throughout the Big Ten season. Ohio State is playing for pride, and that’s enough motivation in and of itself.
(21) Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27 – Of the 10 Big Ten teams eligible for postseason play, Nebraska proved Saturday why it has the best shot to crack the BCS. Down 17 points in the third quarter, the Huskers clawed back to secure a 3-point win, thanks largely to quarterback Taylor Martinez, who continues to make strides as both a passer and a leader. Martinez was instrumental in Nebraska’s comeback as he put on a dazzling display of dual-threat brilliance. His final numbers: 13 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown; 17 of 29 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Though Martinez stole the headlines, Wisconsin showed more toughness than it had all season and provided some level of reassurance for Badgers fans smarting after an underwhelming start to the season. If Wisconsin can sustain the intensity they brought to Memorial Stadium Saturday night, it may yet emerge from a watered down Leaders Division.
Iowa 31, Minnesota 13 – The only undefeated Big Ten team eligible for postseason play is…Northwestern. Thanks to Iowa’s smackdown of previously unbeaten Minnesota, which saw walk-on running back Mark Weisman punish the Gophers defense with 21 carries for 177 yards and a touchown, the Wildcats and Ohio State (ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions) are the league’s only remaining unbeaten teams. NU’s postseason implications aside, this game was a confidence-builder for the struggling Hawkeyes, who before trouncing the Gophers had dropped home contests to Iowa State and Central Michigan. Iowa proved why it’s still a player in the Legends Division race, no matter the malicious intent building within the famed AIRBHG (the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God). Weisman is a fullback by trade, so perhaps he’s exempt from AIRBHG’s divine wrath.
Around the Big Ten: Looking ahead
by Kevin Trahan
No. 21 Nebraska at No. 12 Ohio State — This is when we'll find out if Nebraska is for real. The Cornhuskers have yet to win at a tough road venue in the Big Ten — last year's win at Penn State following the scandal doesn't count — but they'll have the opportunity to get a marquee win this week in Columbus. The Ohio State offense is still inconsistent, but the defense has been outstanding and should test Taylor Martinez. If the Buckeyes get by this game, an undefeated record seems possible. If Nebraska wins, then the Huskers really should be considered the Legends favorite. We'll learn a lot about both teams next Saturday.
No. 24 Northwestern at Penn State — I'll admit, I didn't expect to be typing "No. 24 Northwestern" at some point this season. But as I said earlier, this game will show us if the Wildcats really deserve that number, or one even higher. Penn State struggled early on, but has suddenly found its offense and won three straight. The Nittany Lions are one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten and Bill O'Brien has done an outstanding job getting the most out of his depleted squad. Northwestern has emerged as a sleeper in the Big Ten title race and can use this game to gain momentum heading into the rest of the season. It's a big game for both teams and we'll find out which one is for real next Saturday.
Michigan at Purdue — A disappointment in the Legends Division vs. a sleeper in the Leaders Division. I'm still not sold on Purdue as a sleeper, since the Boilermakers have yet to put together a game where both the offense and defense play well. However, a win against Michigan would make a statement that the Boilers really can be a factor in the conference title race and it's coming at the perfect time, with the Wolverines fresh off a draining loss to Notre Dame, followed by a bye week. This is a crucial game for Michigan to avoid falling to 2-3 and making a disappointing season that much more of one.