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Northwestern is 3-0 and actually better than its record indicates

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This team has eked out wins the last two weeks and can be much better.

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

EVANSTON, Illinois — Northwestern is 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in 20 years, the last time it claimed a conference championship. The Wildcats’ three wins have come in as many different ways: a blowout, a seventeen-point comeback, and a good old West Division rock fight.

The last two victories haven’t come via particularly pretty methods, and they haven’t necessarily jumped off the page as impressive. But don’t let two Ws by a combined nine points fool you into thinking they’ve gotten lucky and are headed for a regression.

In its 40-point blowout of Maryland, Northwestern could do no wrong. At Iowa, NU quickly learned it was capable of making mistakes this year, as two first-quarter turnovers led to 14 Iowa points and an eventual 17-0 deficit. After the ‘Cats refused to take advantage of an early one-score lead and favorable field position against Nebraska, they began a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Charlie Kuhbander missed a field goal, and Peyton Ramsey underthrew an open Riley Lees on what could’ve been a touchdown if not a long gain that ended up as a tipped interception. The Huskers climbed within a point of NU before Ramsey got tunnel vision and gifted them with another pick that led to a score and a 13-7 Nebraska lead at the half.

“We just knew that we were beating ourselves,” Ramsey said. “The message was simple: ‘Just keep chipping away and execute one thing at a time, and things are going to fall into place.’ Credit their defense, they’re good, but we didn’t execute as well as we should have.”

Such miscues plagued Northwestern in first halves against Iowa and Nebraska, but coming out of halftime, the veteran squad has shown its poise and a defensive resolve that has so far been second to none. Mike Hankwitz’s defense has yet to allow a second-half point in 2020 while securing six interceptions after the break.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian made successful halftime adjustments as well, dialing up two touchdown drives against the Huskers. His play calling tendencies don’t look for constant home runs. Instead they seek to lull defenses into what they think they know is coming before getting them to bite on a different play run out of a familiar formation. He’ll strategically give up a play or three to get a big one later on in the game, and one or two execution lapses on those would-be hits has fans quivering at the sight of the ghost of Mick McCall. With a healthy Isaiah Bowser, many of those inside runs with Drake Anderson or Evan Hull pick up a yard or two more and keep things on schedule.

The miscues prove that this team is for real. Pat Fitzgerald has become a Northwestern coaching legend by developing a disciplined, fundamentally sound program. The uncharacteristic mistakes that have hampered NU the past couple of weeks likely won’t be a season-long issue. Take away a couple of plays from each of the last two games and the final scores get a bit more comfortable.

Northwestern, despite being outgained by both the Hawkeyes and Huskers, was the better team in both games. It has begun to reforge its identity as a defense-first team that will let you move between the 20s and then hold down A on the controller after that.

This squad has brought back shades of 2018’s magic, especially with forcing turnovers, but the 2020 team has been more in control. Yes, Fitz likes to turtle up offensively at the end of games, but that’s simply how he is, for better or for worse.

Most exciting about this team is not just its balance of youth and experience but its self-awareness. These guys know what they can be and aren’t satisfied with how they’ve won games. Linebackers who stood tall in the red zone numerous times were lamenting their several missed tackles, while breakout safety Brandon Joseph, who notched six tackles and a key interception, was unimpressed with himself.

“I saw he had a look on his face like he was a little upset,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald about Joseph on Saturday. “And I said, ‘Tell me about how you played. You look like you don’t think you played very well.’ And he was like, ‘No I didn’t play very well at all.’”

The theme of this two-to-three week stretch for Northwestern is resilience. NU will have played both Nebraska and Purdue after they had bye weeks due to Wisconsin cancelations, leaving its opponents more rested. Against the Boilermakers’ potent passing attack, the ‘Cats may not be able to afford another mistake-filled first half, but there’s no question about the fight in this team.

“You’ve got to respond,” Fitz said. “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you’re going to do about it.”

So far, Northwestern has thrived at that latter 90 percent. The Wildcats are sure to take a gut punch from some combination of Purdue receivers David Bell and Rondale Moore, but if they can show the same strength they have over the past two weeks, they’ll have the inside track to winning the Big Ten West.