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Northwestern beats Western Michigan, but must avoid slow starts going forward

EVANSTON, Ill. – There was a moment Saturday afternoon when an earth-shattering upset in the Big Ten appeared imminent. Legends division frontrunner Michigan found itself, unexpectedly and thrillingly, on the brink of a home defeat to Akron, a Mid American Conference bottom-feeder that had not won a road game since 2008.

The Zips pieced together a long drive late in the fourth quarter, crisp completions and gashing runs sinking the hearts of Wolverines fans, methodically working their way towards Michigan’s end zone. With the game, and coach Brady Hoke’s perfect home record on the line, Michigan stood up Akron at its own goal line, and would hold on to win, 28-24, but the optics – barely scraping by an opponent with far less talent and athleticism – were lumped in with a largely disappointing day for the Big Ten conference.

A Saturday billed as a non-conference proving grounds of sorts, glimmering with opportunity and optimism as several high-profile inter-league games beckoned, ended in disappointment.

It began when Nebraska gave up 38 unanswered points and fell to UCLA, 41-21, and Penn State bookended Michigan’s narrow escape with a three-point home loss to Central Florida, which coincided with previously 2-0 Illinois' 10-point defeat to Washington at Soldier Field. Wisconsin, a seemingly mechanical outfit through two dominating victories in two weeks, lost by two at Arizona State on a baffling final sequence. And through the first quarter of Northwestern’s game against Western Michigan, where the Wildcats were listed as 30.5-point favorites, it looked as if the league would suffer another blow to its perception on an already dispiriting day.

Four sluggish drives – ending in an interception, punt, missed field goal and punt – left the Wildcats down 3-0 to a team that lost last week to FCS also-ran Nicholls State. The stage was set for an upset. Another reporter in the press box, sensing the similarity to earlier proceedings, exclaimed, “This feels a lot like Michigan-Akron."

“I thought they were awake from the get-go,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterward. “They just didn’t execute.”

Which is right about when Northwestern remembered it was the 17th-ranked (AP Poll) team in the country, and Western Michigan was, well, Western Michigan – an overmatched MAC foe having reached the outer limits of its competitive potential against a Big Ten championship contender. Northwestern took control swiftly and decisively. A 24-point second quarter, interrupted only by a 75-yard Broncos touchdown, crushed Western Michigan’s upset bid.

The torpor of Northwestern’s first-quarter performance had evaporated; the Wildcats had taken a lead, navigated the Broncos' quick-strike response, and positioned themselves to notch, with minimal fuss, another victory. Two second-half touchdowns from Treyvon Green, combined with improved defense, sealed the win, 38-17, Northwestern’s third in three weeks, the first time the program has started 3-0 in consecutive years since 1958-’59.

"I love it that 471 yards and 38 points is kinda not acceptable," Fitzgerald said. "So, that's a good thing. The negative out of it obviously is the first four or five drives that I charted that we didn't score points, and that's unacceptable."

Next week, Northwestern’s opponent, Maine, a 3-0 FCS team, should not test the Wildcats’ anymore than Western Michigan did. If preseason reputations mean anything, the Black Bears should fold far earlier than Saturday’s opponent; even a small deficit early in the game, something like the three-point lead the Broncos built in the first quarter, would be a surprise.

But that does not mean Northwestern, undefeated and brimming with momentum, can take its next opponent lightly. This will be the last chance for the Wildcats to iron out any deficiencies in a regulated game before facing welcoming Ohio State to Ryan Field Oct. 5, homecoming weekend, in a game that’s shaping up to be the Big Ten’s most significant, for conference championship purposes, before the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game on Nov. 30.

Another lethargic opening quarter might not hurt Northwestern against Maine, but against Ohio State, who trampled Cal 52-34 Saturday, any momentary lapse in performance could leave Northwestern at a deficit that – against an opponent the caliber of the Buckeyes – may prove irredeemable.

There were positives to be taken from Saturday’s win. Green continued his breakout season with 158 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, while quarterback Kain Colter turned in another strong performance (particularly on the ground, where he rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries) after suffering a concussion early in the Cal game. True freshman cornerback Matt Harris, one of two first-year players to burn redshirts so far this season after running back Warren Long saw his first playing time Saturday, ran back the opening kick 47 yards, a dazzling burst of speed and explosiveness that caused the Broncos to direct kicks away from him the rest of the game.

Those players will need to continue to perform at a high level heading into the home showdown with the Buckeyes, the most challenging fixture on the Wildcats’ schedule. Avoiding a listless start will be even more important.

The consequences of opening the Ohio State game the same way the Wildcats did Saturday's win over Western Michigan will be severe.