by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
For once, the Northwestern athletic department had to be happy the eyes of the nation were focused on the rest of the Big Ten rather than tuned in to Saturday’s action in Evanston. Because on a day when lesser opponents made things interesting with the so-called “heavyweights” around the conference, there was no such drama in NU’s 38-7 drubbing of South Dakota.
In a business-like approach, the Wildcats did exactly what was expected of them — go up early and stay there — en route to a quiet 4-0 start. There was no letdown; there was no “Cardiac Cats” mantra. But even after a dominant performance, there was no high-fiving and no big celebration, and that’s what NU learned from working out with another group of proven winners — the Navy SEALs — this offseason.
“We expected to be 4-0 and every operation the Navy Seals go into, they expect to be victorious,” quarterback Kain Colter said. “So you can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. You’ve just got to keep going, keep doing what you’re doing and I think that was the biggest lesson that they taught us.
“Those guys are the best at what they do. If they complete a mission, they’re not going to be jumping for joy, giving each other high fives. That’s what they expect out of themselves and these first four games that we had, we expected to win those games and show the entire nation what Northwestern football is going to bring to the table this season.”
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has always preached that his team “expects victory,” but it’s one thing to say it, and another to show it. NU showed it on Saturday.
“I thought we had a very professional-like approach and performance today,” Fitzgerald said. “Now it’s time to get back in it and prepare for a team that has had a week off to prepare for us.”
It was the complete opposite performance of the sloppy, crazy up-and-down game NU put together in the first week of the season against Syracuse. Last year’s team — especially the defense — folded in pressure situations and struggled to respond. The maturity of this team is much different.
“I like to think that our guys, as a close-knit community that we have, as a defense, especially — I can’t speak for the offense; I know they’re very close — I think that definitely helps in trying to come together and trying to put our foot down on some teams,” defensive end Quentin Williams said.
NU didn’t put its foot down — it stopped South Dakota right in its tracks. Fitzgerald said the goal on Saturday was to control the line of scrimmage and the Cats did exactly that, rushing for 277 yards and holding the Coyotes to just 51 yards on the ground. Granted, that comes against an FCS team that is weak against the run even by FCS standards, but NU has been a run-based team since the Vanderbilt game, and that will likely continue until it stops working.
“We’ve been running the ball really well,” Colter said. “Our offensive line has done a great job opening up some holes. The running backs have been running hard. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, so we’re going to keep coming back to that.
“Football, if you can dominate the run game, you have a great chance of winning, so would I like to throw a bunch of touchdown passes with the receivers? Would I like to catch a whole bunch of touchdown passes? Yeah, but right now, the running game is working for us, so we’re going to stick to that.”
The going should get tougher for the running game as NU enters the Big Ten season — maybe not next week against Indiana, but assuredly the following week against Penn State. For that reason, NU won’t dwell on this game and give itself a pat on the back for a 4-0 non-conference record.
“Now the challenge changes a little big because the competition speaks for itself,” Fitzgerald said. “After I see the week-to-week grind and the challenges we face as we move forward, then I’ll be able to evaluate our maturity. It’s really about being able to put a game to bed, move on and get ready for the next one.”
Business-like. There isn’t much else to say to say about NU’s performance besides that — no drama, no excitement. And that’s just the way these Cats like it.