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Weekend Rewind, Week 4: Final Thoughts on NU’s Win, Around the Big Ten and Looking Ahead

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 about NU's win over South Dakota

Rankings Aren't Important

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Earlier this week, Pat Fitzgerald said that he didn't really care that Northwestern wasn't ranked.

"I’ve had a bunch of fans send me messages (asking), 'Aren’t you mad that you aren’t ranked?' No, I don’t really care," Fitzgerald said. "It doesn’t matter. If it were me, I don’t know why we’d rank anybody prior to October anyways. It’s a waste of time, because nobody has played anybody yet. Wait until you get to the conference play for about three weeks, if you want to talk about things that are out of our control. But even then I wouldn’t give a crap if we’re ranked or not. It doesn’t matter."

A lot of Fitzgerald says is "coach-speak" — making sure he doesn't say anything wrong to the media in order to help his perception. Fitzgerald telling the media that South Dakota will be a tough test because it just beat "a well-coached Colgate team?" That's coach-speak. But in this case, Fitzgerald was speaking his mind, because it really didn't matter that NU wasn't ranked after being 3-0 and it still doesn't matter that NU isn't ranked now that it's 4-0.

Rankings are ridiculously flawed and incorporate a ton of bias considering that a National Championship is on the line. But since even the people with the most purple-tinted glasses don't see NU as a national title contender, the Wildcats' ranking (or lack thereof) really isn't important. Of course Wisconsin and Virginia Tech don't deserve to be ranked ahead of NU right now given their body of work, but if NU is better at the end of the season, the Cats will get the placement they deserve.

The fact that NU is on the outside looking in at both the AP and Coaches Polls doesn't matter, and it doesn't make the Cats a worse football team than if they were ranked No. 25. Similarly, NU will probably be ranked if it beats Indiana next week, but that doesn't mean the team has gotten any better. The only ranking that matters is at the end of the year, and wherever NU ends up during bowl season, we won't be looking at the week 4 or week 5 top 25 at all.

Special Teams Play Has Been Excellent

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The inconsistency that defined Northwestern’s special teams in 2011 play has all but disappeared this season. Field goal kicker Jeff Budzien, who last year made just six of 10 total attempts, is eight-for-eight on the season and nine-for-nine on PATs. His consistency has reduced Pat Fitzgerald’s eagerness on fourth downs. Last season, the Wildcats led the Big Ten with 28 fourth down conversion attempts, 17 of which were successful. Through four games this season, NU has gone for it on fourth down just four times, thanks in large part to Fitzgerald’s newfound confidence in Budzien, particularly from longer distances. Whereas last season the lingering suspicion Budzien would misfire from anywhere outside 40 yards – a skepticism not at all unfounded, given Budzien’s struggles on long kicks – prompted Fitzgerald to leave the offense on the field, Budzien’s consistency makes that decision a simple one. Taking the points, unless you absolutely must go for it, is usually the better option, and Budzien has given Fitzgerald the confidence to embrace this line of thinking.

Equally impressive is the punt game, where Brandon Williams has booted five of his 16 punts for more than 50 yards, landed six of them inside the opponent’s 20 and caused just one touchback. He’s averaging 39.8 net yards on his punts, a decent-sized increase from his 35.1 mark of last season. The return game, as we all witnessed against Syracuse, is one of the most imposing in the Big Ten thanks to Venric Mark and his playmaking ways. The special teams unit as a whole, even coverage team, has improved in every measurable facet of the game. This phase of the game is often trivialized by its more prevalent counterparts (offense, defense), but special teams play can make or break contests, even seasons. NU, unlike last year, has a unit it can feel comfortable with.

Around the Big Ten

Penn State Gaining Momentum

by Kevin Trahan

After an 0-2 start with losses to Ohio and Virgina, most of the country wrote off Penn State as a sub-.500 team this year. Considering how atrocious the offense has been, and how atrocious it figured to be without Silas Redd at running back, I did the same. But after two straight wins against Navy and Temple, Penn State is back to .500. Granted, Navy is terrible and Temple is average at best, but the PSU offense has gained some much-needed momentum heading into Big Ten play, with at chance to build on that against a struggling Illinois team next week.

Ever since losing quarterback Daryll Clark after the 2009 season, PSU has struggled to find success in the passing game. Quarterback Matt McGloin struggled in his first two years in Happy Valley, and after a rough start to 2012, he has been the best passer in the Big Ten (though that's not saying much). McGloin needs to get into a rhythm to succeed, and now that he's started to build confidence, Penn State's offense has a chance to do fairly well this year. In fact, the Nittany Lions may be the second-best team in the Leaders Division, though the top two teams are ineligible. If PSU can get a win in Champaign next week, it will set up a very interesting matchup in State College the second week of conference play.

The Legends Division Race Is Wide Open 

by Chris Johnson

Three contenders were readily included in most everyone’s preseason predictions for the Legends Division Crown. None of them made it through nonconference play unblemished, and two of them – Michigan State and Michigan – looked downright unimpressive. The Wolverines were clobbered in the season-opener against Alabama. This much was expected. Losing to Notre Dame, and doing so thanks to five turnovers from Heisman hopeful Denard Robinson, wasn’t. Michigan does not look like the offensive juggernaut it was made out to be, and the defense, while it showed improvement against the Irish, is nothing special. Michigan State’s only comfortable victory this season came at Central Michigan. In its three other contests, against Boise State, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan, the Spartans were tested throughout. With a 3-1 record and a host of concerns on the offensive side of the ball, it’s clear Michigan State’s flaws are greater than we once believed. Its stellar defense cannot make up for the offense’s shortcomings, not for an entire season.

Which brings us to Nebraska, who – aside from a 36-30 road loss to UCLA, which, considering UCLA’s noted improvements, is not a terrible result – has looked dominant against weak competition. The offense has flourished under a repolished Taylor Martinez and the defense has improved through the first month of the season. The Huskers, as of this writing, are the division favorite, and it’s hardly debatable. Whether that lasts, or whether Michigan, Michigan State or another team knocks Nebraska off its perch, is yet to be determined. The end result will come into clearer focus as we move into conference play. What’s clear through four weeks of the season, on the eve of league competition, is that the Division race is completely up for grabs. This is not, contrary to the popular preseason belief, a three-team competition. Northwestern, Minnesota, even Iowa (despite its own nonconference struggles) has a chance to make some noise in this Division race. Unless the top three can get their acts together in conference play, the unpredictability of the conference season could produce an unlikely division champion.

Around the Big Ten: Recapping three key games

by Kevin Trahan

Central Michigan 32, Iowa 31 — Directional Michigan schools haven't been kind to Iowa. The Hawkeyes' last loss to a MAC team was in 2007 against Western Michigan; that's also the last time Iowa missed a bowl game and the last time Kirk Ferentz's squad was this low on talent and experience. This team figured to struggle in the early-going because it's so young, but the young players have been the most impressive so far for the Hawkeyes, but experienced players like quarterback James Vandenberg and wide receiver Keenan Davis haven't stepped up — Iowa's first passing touchdown came against the Chippewas. This team could be in danger of missing a bowl game unless drastic improvements are made in Big Ten play.

No. 11 Notre Dame 13, No. 18 Michigan 6 — The narrative about Denard Robinson continued Saturday night — he piles up video game numbers against bad teams, but struggles against good teams that have the athleticism on defense to contain him. Notre Dame took away Robinson's running threat, and with just the passing game to worry about, the Irish took advantage and intercepted him four times. The Wolverines' defense looked improved, but the team has yet to have a good game from both the offense and the defense. Michigan fell to 2-2 — out of the top 25 — with losses to the two solid teams it has faced. With a matchup coming up against an improved purdue team in West Lafayette, the Wolverines could be in danger of falling below .500 after week 5.

Louisiana Tech 52, Illinois 24 — What ever happened to the Illinois defense? Granted, Louisiana Tech has one of the best offenses in the country, but 52 points, Illinois? At home? The defense was supposed to be the strength of Tim Beckman's first Illini squad and it was supposed to be one of the better units in the conference. However, it looks a lot more like one of Beckman's Toledo teams, only without the ridiculous offensive numbers. Illinois figured to struggle on offense a little bit with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase just returning from injury, but it should have done better than 24 points against one of the worst defenses in the country. In such a week division, this could have been the year for Illinois to make some noise. Right now, even with less-than-stellar competition, that doesn't look likely.

Around the Big Ten: Looking Ahead to Week Five

by Chris Johnson

(14)Ohio State at (20)Michigan State – The only thing more embarrassing than the Big Ten’s putrid nonconference efforts is that its best team, Ohio State, can’t compete in postseason play (league championship included), but – thanks to a bizarre technicality – can win the Leaders Division title. Imagine commissioner Jim Delany having to hand OSU the Leaders Division crown without extending an invitation to Indianapolis for the conference title game. It’s utterly hilarious, albeit really, really awkward. The Buckeyes may have not have a bowl game to play for, but rest assured, first-year coach Urban Meyer is gunning for that division crown. He has the talent to do it, especially with quarterback Braxton Miller making a strong push for the Heisman trophy. The Spartans have already gone down at home this season (Notre Dame). They will defend home turf at all costs.

Wisconsin at (22)Nebraska – The Legends Division title race begins in earnest at Lincoln Memorial Stadium. This game looks a lot less enticing than it did four weeks ago, not least because of Wisconsin’s poor showing in nonconference play: In four weeks, the Badgers have benched their starting quarterback, watched their star running back struggle with concussion problems and exposed dozens of new flaws. The Huskers, at least as far as I can tell, are the better team, but if there ever was a time where Wisconsin needed to flip the switch, it’s this game. The Badgers can still salvage their season with another League Championship game appearance, but they need to sort things out quickly. Nebraska may be the toughest team Wisconsin faces all season, so only its very best – the mashing, run-heavy style Bret Bielema has coached to perfection in recent years – will provide even the slightest glimmer of hope for pulling off the road upset.

Minnesota at Iowa – Judging by records, Minnesota is the better team. The Gophers played a soft nonconference schedule, but they won all their games. Which is more than you can say about Iowa, whose nightmare continued Saturday with a home loss to Central Michigan – this after losing at Kinnick Stadium to in-state rival Iowa State two weeks prior. This was billed as something of a rebuilding year for the Hawkeyes, but bowl eligibility and a top-half Legends Division finish were baseline expectations. Iowa has a deeper and more talented roster than Minnesota, not to mention a better coach a huge home-field advantage. But the Gophers, even without star quarterback Marqueis Gray, have proven they can win close games this season. If the Hawkeyes don’t awake from their nonconference doldrums, Minnesota will leave Iowa City with an undefeated record, victory in tow. This is an uncharacteristically poor start for Iowa. Losing to Minnesota would further tarnish a deplorable non-league season and delay any notion of a Hawkeyes rebirth in conference competition.