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Northwestern is 3-2: How did we get here?

Northwestern is in first place in the Big Ten West. How is this possible?

Jonathan Daniel

It's Oct. 5, which is another way of saying that we don't have nearly enough information to predict what will happen the rest of the season. But after Saturday's 20-14 win over Wisconsin in Evanston, Ill., it feels like a good time to stop and consider about what's unfolded so far.

Just look at the standings. The Wildcats are the only team in the Big Ten West division with a 2-0 record. Remember when a reporter asked Fitz if his team was good enough to win a conference game?

It may be early October, and NU could easily lose at Minnesota next week, but this team has already completed a pretty remarkable turnaround.

After starting the year with two ugly losses to Cal and Northern Illinois, followed by an ugly win over Western Illinois, Northwestern has beaten two solid conference opponents in consecutive weeks.

One of those wins happened at a place, Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., the Wildcats had not won at in 10 years. The other came against a team some observers once considered a semi-realistic candidate for the College Football Playoff.

Two wins is only two wins, but neither of them were the product of luck or gimmicky trick plays or anything you can definitively pinpoint as unsustainable going forward.

The Wildcats played legitimately good defense, holding Penn State and Wisconsin to a combined 20 points. The defense's effort in the PSU win was particularly impressive; Christian Hackenberg was flustered and the Lions managed only 50 rushing yards on 2.0 ypc.

Northwestern couldn't stop Wisconsin bellcow Melvin Gordon on Saturday (27 carries, 259 yards, 1 TD, 9.6 ypc), but neither can anyone else in this league; he's a really good back. Fitz compared Gordon to Walter Payton this week.

It helped that NU was able to force four turnovers, and if the Badgers could have coaxed better quarterback play out of Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave, they probably would've won Saturday.

That said, the Wildcats acquitted themselves better against Wisconsin than they did a year ago, and that's encouraging when you consider who NU faces from here on out.

Again, it's way, way too early to be looking ahead on the schedule, but we can at least say that some of the games that looked like losses or complete toss-ups just a few weeks ago appear more manageable now.

That homecoming night date against Nebraska at Ryan Field? Earlier this season, I would have said that game was a lost cause. Based on what Northwestern has shown the last two weeks (and recent matchups with UNL) ... it's probably going to be tight.

Instead of spending our time debating whether the program has slipped, we're now asking whether Northwestern is a division contender.