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Is Northwestern ready for Big Ten play?

Northwestern opens conference play next week against Penn State. Do the Wildcats have a chance against the Nittany Lions?

Jonathan Daniel

A week from Saturday, Northwestern will face Penn State at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions are 4-0 on the season, with wins over UCF, Akron, Rutgers and Massachusetts. They feature one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, Christian Hackenberg, and a running game that finally got going in a 48-7 win over the Minutemen on Saturday.

You would insult Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald by suggesting that the Wildcats can't beat Penn State, but over the first three games of the season, they haven't provided any reasons to believe otherwise. Saturday's 24-7 result against FCS Western Illinois felt more like a loss than a win. It also didn't offer any hope that Northwestern can win Big Ten games.

What does Fitz think about that?

"Yeah, absolutely. No question." Fitz said, when asked if Northwestern is good enough to win conference games.

"What makes you say that?" the reporter, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, followed up.

"We won a football game and as I look at our league, I think it still comes down to the 60 minutes that you play each game," Fitz said. "It has anything to do with any game you played in the past. So, quite frankly, I'm not going to get mad at you, but I'm a little insulted by the question."

"Really?" the reporter followed.

"Yeah," Fitz said.

"Well this is an FCS opponent," the reporter said.

"We won 24-7 and I believe our team can win every football game that we play," Fitz said. "I'm not saying I'm mad at you. I'm just saying, from a question standpoint, I think we can win every game that we play. I really do. Are we playing at an incredibly high level? No, not necessarily. But we won a football game; I believe we can continue to win."

Northwestern didn't pummel the Leathernecks the way good FBS teams should pummel most FCS ones, the way, say, Michigan State pummeled Jacksonville State earlier this year (45-7). The Wildcats were outgained 376-283 and struggled to move the ball against a defense that's probably worse than any they'll face in conference play.

As Kevin Trahan wrote earlier, Northwestern did nothing to solve the problem that has plagued it all season - failing to run plays that accentuate the strengths of the personnel. Call it bad play calling or an identity crisis or something else, but until the Wildcats fix their schematic issues, the turnaround everyone's expecting/hoping for won't happen.

Next week's meeting with the Nittany Lions should offer a decent indication of how Northwestern will fare in conference play. This is a game the Wildcats should at least be competitive in. If they can't hang with Penn State, this season could spiral out of control pretty quickly. If it's a tight game or - let's not get carried away now - Northwestern wins, maybe this team could notch a few more Ws than looks possible right now.

Fitz may be insulted by a reporter asking him whether his team can win a conference game, but he's not the only one who feels that way.