In the Big Ten, teams that play outstanding defense, execute well on special teams and get timely offense win a lot of football games. They challenge double-digit wins. They often have a say in who earns the conference title.
One of those teams, thus far, is the Northwestern Wildcats.
After a 27-0 romp over Minnesota, the No. 16 Wildcats, who are almost guaranteed to jump into the top fifteen on tomorrow's polls, proved they are here to stay, and they'll be playing games that could determine the Big Ten West championship as conference play rolls on.
The win over Stanford in Week 1 was an eye-opener. To see a ranked Stanford team that was expected to challenge for a playoff spot lose to a Northwestern program coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons was more indicative of Stanford potentially not being very good. At first. That win didn't vault Northwestern into contender status. After all, it was the first game of the year.
Week 2 brought a 41-0 walk in the park over Eastern Illinois, a team that even Pat Fitzgerald admitted was never going to be much of a challenge. Week 2 also brought, however, a shiny new number -- 23 -- next to Northwestern's name. Still, whatever rumblings around the nation that the Wildcats were legitimate were very quiet. After all, if Northwestern had even the slightest amount of trouble with the Panthers, any momentum after beating the Cardinal would have dissipated.
But then Northwestern went into Durham and beat Duke with a dominant defensive effort. Later that night, Stanford went to the Coliseum and beat a then-top-10 Southern California team. With the help of the transitive property, plus a Power-5 road win, those rumblings turned to legitimate conversation. Just how good could this team be, especially after beating Duke somewhat comfortably despite a rough outing from their starting quarterback. Those conversations must have been between some of the AP voters too, as Pat Fitzgerald's bunch jumped to No. 17 in the nation.
Then came the closest game of the year to date. No, it wasn't a Power 5 opponent, and no, it wasn't even on the road. Yes, it was the Ball State Cardinals leading Northwestern until halftime and forcing the Wildcats to air it out. Clayton Thorson had his career high in yards, and while the defense seemingly took a step back, it was a win. Much like Ohio State eking one out over Northern Illinois, it wasn't an impressive performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one that's absolutely necessary to win in a game that good teams find a way to win. Northwestern did just that. Coupled with a Duke win over Georgia Tech, the Wildcats jumped another spot in the polls. While the program is often made fun of for being "a bunch of nerds," that might be beneficial. They surely understand the transitive property.
More Game Coverage
More Game Coverage
Then came Minnesota, a team Northwestern has struggled with recently and a team built to be in every game. Tough defense, disciplined special teams and hard-nosed running have become givens for a Jerry Kill-coached team.
Not against Northwestern.
The Wildcats allowed 173 yards of offense. 173! Yes, Minnesota's offense isn't built to come from behind, but my goodness, 173 yards is insanely low. The Golden Gophers averaged a measly 13 yards or so per possession. On 33 rushes, the Golden Gophers had 70 yards.
But we already knew that the defense was legit. The unit proved that against Stanford and Duke, and despite a hiccup against Ball State, it was still widely regarded as one of the strongest defenses in the nation.
How about the offense? Well Thorson's throwing stat line isn't glorious: 14/19, 128 yards, no touchdowns. But it's not meant to be. Northwestern doesn't -- and probably throughout this season will not -- put a lot of weight on its redshirt freshman quarterback's shoulders. The biggest stat? Pat Fitzgerald said it best in his postgame press conference: "Zero tunovers, baby." The only times this year when Northwestern has been at risk of losing have been when Thorson hasn't taken care of the ball. When he takes care of the ball, this team can play with anyone and beat almost everyone.
The Wildcats have one of the most skilled backs in the nation -- yes, the nation -- in Justin Jackson. Consider this: his speed is probably average at best, yet he churns out yards like few other backs can because of his patience and vision and pure running ability. He's not the most athletic. But when it comes to skill, he's up there with anyone.
And let's not forget Northwestern's special teams -- an area of the game that has hurt the Wildcats in the recent past -- have been outstanding. Solomon Vault completely changed the complexion of the Duke game with his second-half-opening kick return touchdown. Miles Shuler did the same this week when he sprung one for 55 yards and got stopped just five yards short. The importance of these two plays cannot be overstated. Without them, the stumbling offenses would have had to put up the points. Instead, they didn't even have to take the field against Duke and only had to run one play against Minnesota to punch in a TD. While Jack Mitchell hasn't been great, he has been clutch, and while Hunter Niswander has been just mediocre, he hasn't made any mistakes, and his coverage units have been outstanding.
Just like I said in the opening, teams that put all three aspects of the game together win. And even if they don't win, they're always tough to beat. Northwestern, through five games, is that team.
Now it would be foolish to say that Northwestern is the favorite to win the Big Ten (read: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan), but it's no longer a major stretch of the imagination to say that they're a contender. Both Ohio State and Michigan State have had their struggles, and Michigan's offense is still a piece of work.
Now I know what most of you are thinking: "Zach Pereles hasn't seen enough Northwestern football to know the heartbreak I've been through as a Northwestern fan." And it's true. But this team can make a run at the Big Ten West crown -- Wisconsin can't score, making Iowa the biggest threat as of right now -- at Indianapolis. This game proved it. Next week could prove if they're for real on the national stage. A win at Michigan would likely put Northwestern in the Top 10 and on the inside track for the Big Ten Championship game.
But for one week, savor the fact that the Northwestern Wildcats are a legitimate 5-0 and a legitimate soon-to-be Top 15 team. And if they continue to play this way, there's no reason why they can't continue their ascension into the college football elite.