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Which is the real Northwestern?

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The team that outclassed Penn State? Or the one that stumbled through its first three games? It's tough to tell, but the answer is somewhere in between.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, everything was bright. Football season was upon us, and with the opening weekend, as is always the case, came hope – hope, or even expectation, that Northwestern’s bounce-back season was about to get underway.

But similarly, as is always the case for many teams, that hope was extinguished before it could even materialize. We cautioned against overreaction to NU’s season opening loss to Cal, but then gave in after the loss to NIU, and further buried this Wildcat team after a sluggish win over WIU. NU had gone from Big Ten West darkhorse to stuck in a rut near the bottom of the conference, and hadn’t provided much evidence to think it could climb out of it.

But after four gloomy weeks, that hope has returned. Perhaps not as emphatically as before, but nonetheless, it has. But how real is it? How much of four weeks can be erased by three hours?

Is this Northwestern team the one that vanquished Penn State in Happy Valley Saturday? Or is it the one that stumbled through three games that perhaps could’ve or should’ve been relatively painless?

The answer is, as it always is when this type of question is posed, somewhere in between the two extremes. But let's look at a few reasons to believe or remain reticent.

Penn State isn’t good

Or at least the Nittany Lions aren’t as good as we thought they were, nor are they as good as their record indicated. This team has issues – plenty of them. Some were actually exposed two weeks ago when Penn State eked out a win over Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights weren’t good enough to exploit them. Northwestern, however, was.

So what does that mean for NU? Well, for one, the Wildcats are better than Rutgers. I don’t think there’s any disputing that. But as well as the defense played, Penn State’s atrocious offensive line certainly aided NU’s cause. That shouldn’t be overlooked, and as this season wears on, I think we’ll realize that NU’s dominant defensive display had more to do with the opponent than this defense’s talent. However…

This NU defense can be good

The defense has been the predominant postgame focus, and with good reason. Our Josh Rosenblat took a look at the new level of athlete on that side of the ball for Northwestern, and Kevin Trahan analyzed the stats behind NU’s defensive improvement.

And while a rancid PSU offense played its part, what some have failed to realize it that any championing of the defense isn’t an overreaction to one game. As Kevin discussed in his piece, the defense was already the strength of this team. It’s not yet ready to be dominant on a weekly basis, but, especially given the current level of offense being played in the Big Ten, it can propel this team back to the level of outside contender in the Big Ten West.

Siemian and the offense

Clearly he and it weren’t perfect, but there were encouraging signs. The ball was coming out of Siemian’s hands much quicker than it had in previous games, and he seemed confident within offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s gameplan. Questions still linger though, and a lot of NU’s offensive success, or lack thereof, will depend on McCall’s ability to devise similarly effective gameplans for Siemian in the coming weeks. So the proper course of action for fans is to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

Winning in a tough environment

This notion is being grossly exaggerated. Not even 100,000 fans can fix a porous offensive line. And plus, winning away from home hasn’t been a problem for Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern teams. Some teams even cherish the opportunity to play in front of imposing crowds. So don’t put much weight on the idea of overcoming Beaver Stadium and its masses.

Mentality change

This, however, is a real thing. It’s something coaches love to talk about, and oftentimes, it’s an empty explanation for either failure or success, but it’s almost tangible with this Northwestern team. Both coaches and players realized after two weeks that the way they had been going about things – everything – was flawed. Fitzgerald and the players took it upon themselves to change their ways, and evidently it has paid off.

We see examples in college football year in and year out of teams for whom something clicks midway through a season, and there’s a very real chance that this is one of those examples. And additionally, while we caution against the one game overreaction, it’s not like three games is a huge sample size either. A complete turnaround isn’t out of the question.

The Big Ten is baaaaaad

With six ‘a’s. You read it right. In fact, even before the Penn State game, I looked at Northwestern’s schedule and figured the Wildcats could still go 6-2 in the Big Ten. It sounded irrational – and maybe it was – but I believed that NU would beat Illinois and Purdue, could certainly beat Minnesota and Iowa, would win one of the two tough home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, and would beat one of Penn State or Michigan.

After the win over Penn State, six wins (seven overall) sounds even more plausible. The Michigan game especially looks better every week. And no matter how much stock we put into Saturday's win, the fact remains that Northwestern doesn't have to be outstanding to win six Big Ten games. It merely has to be slightly above average. And based on Saturday's evidence, I'm prepared to say it can be. ‘Can', not ‘will', but nonetheless, I think the possibility remains. This upcoming Saturday will be a huge opportunity to prove that the possibility does indeed exist.