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After a dominant victory over Wisconsin, Northwestern is in uncharted territory

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This win (and some key losses around the Big Ten) has huge Indianapolis implications.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — This is a big one. In a season where at times it seemed Northwestern (5-3, 4-1 Big Ten) would struggle to qualify for a bowl game, it has established a lead in the Big Ten West nine weeks into the season for the first time in program history.

After losing to Akron in a devastating manner, there was a lot of doom and gloom surrounding the program. But this is Northwestern we’re talking about. They always have bad losses, and they’re always able to turn the season around.

“Our mindset was just keep grinding and keep working. We weren’t going to stop what we were doing. And now that’s why we’re in this position today,” linebacker Paddy Fisher said after the game.

Over the past three weeks, Northwestern found a way to gut out close victories, but Saturday, the story changed. The Wildcats weren’t perfect, but the win was their most complete performance of the year. NU took advantage of a mistake-prone Wisconsin team that lost three fumbles and committed crucial penalties. The offensive line imposed their will on Wisconsin’s front seven, while the defensive line held impressively strong against a vaunted Wisconsin offensive line.

On the offensive side of the ball, there was plenty of room for improvement, but Clayton Thorson and Co. made key plays at the right times. Nine months removed from surgery, Thorson used his legs to help his team, highlighted by a shifty touchdown run and a 27 yard scamper later on.

“It felt really good,” he said after the game.

And although Pat Fitzgerald wouldn’t say it, Isaiah Bowser is establishing himself as a feature back on a team that badly needed one. His bruising style is starting to fill the void left by the losses of Justin Jackson and Jeremy Larkin.

“I’d much rather run free but if I have to run someone over I will,” Bowser, who rushed for 118 yards, said.

Northwestern finds itself in a unique situation. It’s about to be November, and everything is still on the table. Not only does Northwestern have the opportunity to face a likely top three opponent next week in Notre Dame, but the Wildcats also control their destiny on the road to Indianapolis.

The Wildcats got some help. Fellow Big Ten West challengers Iowa and Purdue also suffered losses today, meaning if Northwestern can earn a win in Kinnick Stadium two weeks from today, a division title will be all but wrapped up and Fitz’s dream of Indianapolis would be realized. If Purdue can beat Iowa next week, the Wildcats need only win two of their final three Big Ten games to advance to Indianapolis.

None of that would be possible if it wasn’t for an all-around performance today, as Fitz noted. “It’s a great team win in all three phases. We had a great week of preparation, we came with the right mindset and it showed in our performance today.” Fitzgerald emphasizes the importance of going 1-0 every week. He maintained that position after the game, but this one was special for Northwestern.

As for next week? Ask Isaiah Bowser.

“Somebody has to beat [Notre Dame], so it might as well be us.”