Three weeks already in the books, and the Wildcats remain undefeated. What began as a nice two-game start is now beginning to drive national discussion over whether NU deserves a spot in the AP Poll. While it's still early, few expected NU to be part of the national conversation at any point this season. We encourage you to take in our gameday coverage from the Wildcats' win over Boston College. What follows is our weekly weekend review, with an NU-centric focus and an eye on all things Big Ten.
Final Thoughts on NU's win over Boston College
Linebackers lead the way on defense
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Over the past two weeks Northwestern has flaunted its versatility by proving it can win games not only by outscoring opponents but through stifling defense. After a woeful week one performance at Syracuse, in which the Orange ran roughshod over the Wildcats’ shaky unit, the defense endured a rightfully large dose of criticism, cleaned up its errors and righted itself for two consecutive strong outings. NU has seen the defense improve on all three levels, but there is no position group that deserves more credit for the defensive resurgence than the linebackers. We knew heading into the season that the middle tier of the defense could be the best of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. With Veterans Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi, plus a score of rising youngsters like Chi Chi Ariguzo, Colin Ellis and Drew Smith the linebackers were, on paper at least, the defense’s strongest position group.
Few would have predicted the linebackers would so gracefully and willingly step into that role. The group has played to its preseason hype by submitting a versatile defensive performance. Led by Nwabuisi’s vocal leadership, and Proby’s cool confidence and Ariguzo’s preternatural talents, the linebackers have provided exceptional support in the run game, defended the pass with great vision and balance and relentlessly pursued opposing ballcarriers. Ariguzo in particular has elevated his game, and the Big Ten recognized as much by awarding him with its defensive player of the week award for Ariguzo’s starring efforts against Vanderbilt. When I spoke to Nwabuisi at Big Ten media days, he spoke glowingly about the linebackers and the defense as a whole. At the time, I accepted his praise with reservation. But through three weeks of the season, Nwabuisi’s praise doesn’t seem all that outlandish. Maybe he wasn’t “mediaspeaking”. Compared to last year’s porous unit, this defense looks stronger across the board. The linebackers are leading the charge.
Trumpy Makes a Comeback
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote that Mike Trumpy needed to step up and provide a power running game for Northwestern after a miserable -4 yard performance against Syracuse. Trumpy struggled again in week two, disappearing into the shadow of new starting running back Venric Mark. However, in week three, early a year after he went down with a torn ACL against Illinois, Trumpy finally returned to the form we saw from him in 2010 and before his injury in 2011. After Mark went down with an injury, Trumpy took over and rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries, including his team's only touchdown to put the game away.
Trumpy needed this kind of game. A lot of times, players who come back from ACL injuries are more hesitant than they were before, and Trumpy didn't seem like the power runner he used to be against Syracuse or Vanderbilt. But Saturday, he stepped up and delivered a performance we have become accustomed to seeing from him over the years. Mark is still the starter, but NU needed Trumpy to be available, too. Mark is a speedster and can get to the edge, and while he claims he likes running between the tackles — he's done pretty well with it — he can't push a pile or run as well in short yardage as Trumpy can. Trumpy's return gives NU yet another weapon on its offense, and with the offensive line playing better, it may actually be able to establish a power run game. An offense that spreads the field, has a mobile quarterback, can go five receivers wide, has a speedy "get to the edge" running back and a power running game? You don't get much more versatile than that.
Around the Big Ten
The Big Ten: a long shot for national championship
by Chris Johnson
Even the most fervent Big Ten diehards can’t muster a viable argument for their conference’s relevance in the national title picture. All of the league’s heavyweights – Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin – have slipped up in nonconference play. A one-loss Big Ten team could still find itself playing at Sun Life Stadium in January for all the marbles, but given the league’s watered-down top tier, it would likely require a host of bad losses from contenders in other conferences. Michigan’s loss is excusable: Alabama, at this early stage, is one of, if not the best team in the country. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State – their losses are sour marks on the Big Ten’s collective reputation. Opponent strength aside, these early season losses have all but torched the Big Ten’s chances of remaining in the hunt.
All four of those teams could rebound, or perhaps an unlikely Big Ten upstart – Minnesota and Northwestern are the conference’s only undefeated teams – can run the table, but it’s difficult to envision the league producing a national championship contender. The league as a whole has looked downright unimpressive against other power conferences, particularly the Pac-12, which KO’d the Badgers, Huskers and Illinois last week. That poor track record suggests the Big Ten’s competitive equity is lower than other BCS leagues, that its best teams are worse than other leagues’ best teams. So when the voters are stuck choosing between, say, a one-loss Michigan State and a one-loss Stanford for the BCS title game, the Big Ten’s pitiful nonconference record will influence their decisions. The league can still recover to produce two BCS bowl candidates – the Rose Bowl and one other BCS game – but the national championship is probably out of the realistic realm of possibility. Ohio State was the last Big Ten team to win a BCS national championship (2003). If the league can’t produce a winner either this season or in 2013, the Buckeyes will go down as the Big Ten’s only BCS champion, the lone victor of flawed but viable era.
Weisman for Heisman
by Kevin Trahan
AIRBHG struck again in Iowa City on Saturday and started a whole new chapter in the Iowa running back saga. You don't know AIRBHG? It stands for "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God" and is what Iowa fans blame for an apparent curse on the Hawkeye running back position, since nearly every running back to come to Iowa in the past seven years or so has gotten hurt, gotten suspended, transferred or gotten kicked off the team. Already dealing with an AIRBHG-depleted roster on Saturday, Iowa lost two more running backs, and what had seemed inevitable had finally happened — the Hawkeyes actually ran out of running backs.
The craziest thing about the AIRBHG curse isn't the curse itself, it's that Iowa has still found capable runners every time another one goes down. That happened again Saturday, as the Hawkeyes didn't miss a beat. No running backs? No problem. Iowa turned to walk-on fullback Mark Weisman, who had eight career rushing yards heading into Saturday. He finished with 113 yards and 3 touchdowns in Iowa's 27-16 win over Northern Iowa. Weisman isn't on scholarship and he had dropped out of the Air Force Academy after deciding military life wasn't for him. Saturday, like any fullback, he didn't plan to play a huge offensive role. Instead, the student section was chanting "Weisman for Heisman" at the end of the game. Obviously, Weisman is more likely to be a one-hit wonder than have a Heisman campaign, especially the win came against an FCS team — albeit, a very good one that nearly beat Wisconsin. Plus, Iowa should have some of its running backs back in action in the coming weeks. However, in a Big Ten season short on feel-good stories, this one certainly was refreshing. And considering how crazy the "curse" has gotten in Iowa City, Hawkeye fans will take yards just about any way they can get them.
Around the Big Ten: Recapping three key games
by Chris Johnson
(11) Notre Dame 20, (21) Michigan State 3 – When the Spartans scored just 17 points against a rebuilt Boise State defense on opening week, few doubted the offense would rebound, improve and corrects its flaws in time a mildly concerning home date with the Irish. MSU scored 41 points against Central Michigan in week two, but the Irish – in notching their first win over a top-ten team in seven years – stifled Le’Veon Bell and the Spartans’ offense into just 78 rushing yards and 237 total yards. For a team carrying perhaps the Big Ten’s final chance at making the National Championship game, the Spartans laid a complete goose egg, at home no less. Notre Dame boasts a talented front seven, but scoring three points at home is unacceptable. The Spartans need some wholesale upgrades on the offensive side of the ball.
Penn State 34, Navy 7 – Two losses to begin the season marked a difficult start to the Bill O’Brien era. But the Nittany Lions secured their first victory Saturday, thanks in large part to a four-touchdown performance from much-maligned quarterback Matt McGloin. The Nittany Lions shut down Navy’s triple-option attack and kept the Midshipmen off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. It was a redeeming performance for O’Brien who was tasked with the unthanking challenge of succeeding a legend. Penn State won’t compete for a Big Ten championship any time soon, but it’s refreshing to see the program experience an emotional and competitive lift after an inauspicious 0-2 start.
Ohio State 35, California 28 – The National Championship game may be out of the picture for Big Ten teams this season, but the Heisman Trophy race is very much within reach thanks to Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller, who continued his Urban Meyer-powered surge by throwing for 249 yards and four touchdowns plus 75 yards and a score on the ground. From a team perspective, beating Cal by just seven points is not the ideal result. But for Miller, it was another big chip on his Heisman-building campaign. While his team can’t compete in the postseason, Miller’s Heisman chase could be the biggest storyline in Columbus this season. That and beating Michigan, of course.
Around the Big Ten: Looking ahead to week four
by Kevin Trahan
Michigan (18) at Notre Dame (11) — Is Notre Dame finally for real? It sure looked like it in the Irish's 20-3 drubbing of Michigan State in East Lansing. Coach Brian Kelly still has a very young team, especially at quarterback, but it has been battle-tested early and seems primed for at least some sort of comeback season. Michigan lost national respect after its loss to Alabama and has yet to regain that, but a win against the Irish would put the Wolverines back into the national discussion — at least a little bit — and get them more hype in the Legends Division race.
Penn State vs. Temple — After two heartbreakingly close losses, Penn State finally put everything together and beat Navy 34-7. Navy is not a very good team — remember, Notre Dame beat the Midshipmen 50-10 in the season-opener — but it was a huge confidence-booster for the Nittany Lions and got them going on the right track. Temple is a bit more of a formidable challenge, but nothing Penn State can't handle, and if Matt McGloin can build on this week's performance, the Nittany Lions will be back at .500 and will have a lot more momentum heading into the Big Ten season.
Minnesota vs. Syracuse — This probably won't be a good game, because Minnesota probably isn't a very good football team, especially without quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was injured last Saturday and doesn't yet have a return date set. Nevertheless, the Gophers are one of four 3-0 teams in the Big Ten, even though that came from beating up on cupcakes. While Syracuse isn't great, the Orange hung in there with USC and Northwestern, and win would make the Gophers' record much more legitimate. There's a very good chance this will be a sloppy game, but considering the rest of the Big Ten slate — with the exception of maybe Illinois-Louisiana Tech — you might as well tune in.