WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Believe it or not, Northwestern is 4-0.
What’s that? You want me to pinch you because you think you’re dreaming? Well, I’m not pinching you and you aren’t dreaming. The Wildcats are off to their best start in conference play since 1996, when they started 5-0 in the Big Ten and finished the season 9-3.
This year is different, of course. No nonconference action meant the ‘Cats opened the season against Maryland, whom they tore apart 43-3. While Northwestern’s wins over Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue weren’t flashy, they were victories, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
Each game has differed from one another. To open the game at Purdue, Northwestern drove 75 yards in 14 plays, finishing the six-minute drive with an easy touchdown pass. Its second touchdown didn’t come until late in the second quarter, but quarterback Peyton Ramsey was a perfect seven-for-seven on that drive and made all the throws to give his team back a one-score lead.
Northwestern needed Ramsey to be sharp, as it ran the ball 40 times for a mere 80 yards. He answered the bell, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns, while Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman hauled in all three scores.
“Peyton, since day one, has taken initiative,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “Whether it be meetings, film, extra throwing sessions, he’s always taking lead. He’s taking care of business and making sure that everybody else is taken care of.”
In what’s been a common theme over the past few seasons, the Wildcat defense was elite once again. It held Purdue to two total rushing yards on 17 carries, while Boilermaker running back Zander Horvath managed just 21 yards on 10 carries. Horvath rushed for over 100 yards against both Iowa and Illinois.
“Our D-Line is always penetrating and making plays,” defensive lineman Eku Leota said. “They can’t run the ball on us because we just hit them in the mouth every single play.”
If there’s one thing that’s been missing through four games, its been offensive consistency and balance. With its win over Purdue, Northwestern proved that even if its offense is one-dimensional, it can win with that dimension. While the run game has been a go-to through the first three games of the season, its ineffectiveness Saturday meant a pivot to an improved passing attack.
A dreadful air game led to NU finishing dead last in the Big Ten West at 3-9 last season. Now, Northwestern sits alone atop the West at 4-0 and No. 19 in the AP Poll. The 10th-ranked Badgers, who missed two games due to a COVID outbreak but have blown out Illinois and Michigan by scores of 45-7 and 49-11, respectively. But in looking to take the next step and challenge likes of Wisconsin and then potentially Ohio State, NU can’t rely on an inconsistent scoring unit.
The ‘Cats have managed to control their destiny both on and off the field, while the Badgers have not and are one more missed game away from being ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship. Even so, UW hasn’t missed a beat, and these two teams may very well decide the West representative in Indy when they face off this Saturday.
The Wildcats are in command, for the time being at least. If we want to get really carried away, they currently have a 3.3% chance to make the College Football Playoff, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor. A win on Saturday raises those chances to at least 18 percent.
Those numbers aren’t worth looking at until next week, if at all. It’s best to appreciate the current situation the Wildcats find themselves in. Having gone from 3-9 to 4-0 in just one calendar year, Northwestern will play its biggest game in a long time, during a pandemic nonetheless.
“I just think our guys are tough. We’ve taken on three of our West foes and we’ve found a way to get it done,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m just proud of the guys’ resiliency and toughness. You keep going up the ladder and it’s going to keep getting more challenging.”