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Where Are We Wednesday: Back in the hunt

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Northwestern is back in the Big Ten West conversation. Time to prove they belong.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern entered the Nebraska game needing a win to compound the upset that it secured in East Lansing. It wasn’t necessarily the way that they drew it up, but they were able to get the win, and that’s a huge credit to the consistent resilience that this team continues to show

Facing a 10-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, Clayton Thorson was able to engineer two efficient drives with a sense of urgency. He didn’t have a perfect game, but he showed the mental toughness and ability that you need out of your fifth-year leader. Fitz summed it up best, saying, “I think there were some plays that he’d like to have back but I loved his response.”

So, here we are. Wisconsin lost to Michigan, giving Northwestern sole possession of the lead in the Big Ten West. Sitting at 3-1 in the division, the season’s goal of winning the Big Ten West is still in play. Losing to Duke and Akron wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t do any meaningful bruising on the season. Okay, maybe the Akron loss is an embarrassing one, but it still didn’t fatally damage the season. And after the Nebraska win, this Northwestern team is right where it needs to be.

NU controls its own destiny in the race for the Big Ten West crown. Fitz always claims that the goal of the program is to win a division title. They travel to Rutgers in search of a win to take them into a huge matchup with Wisconsin, who’s always been a thorn in the side of Northwestern’s conference title hopes. We know who Rutgers is. They’re not a good football team, and Northwestern should have no issues disposing of them at this point of the Fitz era.

It’s time for NU to enter the home of a lesser opponent and take care of business. Do that, and NU will have another chance to prove itself on a big stage. That’s what it’s all about.

Part of that is keeping up the intensity that they’ve shown in recent weeks. It paid huge dividends against Nebraska, as Flynn Nagel outlined.

“Everybody around us, whether we were down or not, you couldn’t tell,” he said. “Guys were pumped up. We had to step up and make some big plays.”

You could say that Northwestern has had issues getting up for games against lesser teams, but you’d hope that the players would’ve learned their lesson at this point.

Plus, Rutgers is an abysmal team, but Akron isn’t much better. The two teams are separated by 5 places from each other in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, at 124th and 119th respectively. They’ve certainly lost this game before.

Falter against a team like Rutgers, or even allow the game to go down to the wire, and we’ll have the same grumblings and moanings about the coaching staff, Thorson, and the program that we saw after games like Duke, Akron, Illinois State, Western Michigan, and many others. Dominate, and NU will be riding three B1G wins into a crucial matchup with Wisconsin with a chance to take control of the division.

We’re going to learn a lot about NU this week. A win won’t determine the season, but a loss would seal its fate.