Back in Evanston, atop the Big Ten standings...and in Scott Frost’s nightmares. That is where Northwestern is on this wonderful Wednesday. Now a few days removed from a win against the Cornhuskers that had Wildcat fans crossing their fingers and chanting an Irish charm for most of the game, Pat Fitzgerald and company return to campus with a 1-0 record.
For returning players and fans alike, it’s an odd time. Odd in the sense that the Week 0 competition platformed a Northwestern football team that looked like an actual football team. In the first half alone, the offense scored as many points as they had in any game since early October of last year. The defense chipped in too, generating the most interceptions in a single game since last September.
It’s a surreal experience. That is, feeling slightly comfortable and confident in a NU football team. Even though our sample size is small, gawking at Ryan Hilinski starting a game 20-for-23, marveling at Evan Hull and Cam Porter combining for 214 rushing yards and cheering as Coco Azema laid on a clutch sack are all feelings I expect to embrace again. Is Scott Frost a bad football coach? Maybe. But are the Cornhuskers an untalented program? Certainly not. The dominance with which the offense ran the ball — with a nod to Kurt Anderson’s massively improved O-line — and the defense, fittingly, stopped the run is a demonstration of balance against skilled opponents we haven’t seen for quite a while on the North Shore.
Now with a week off before hosting the Duke Blue Devils, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad should be teeming with confidence, knowing that their schedule isn’t all that daunting. Consecutive face-offs against programs whose skill falls below that of NU, Duke and Miami (OH), and even Southern-Illinois (who could prove to be a difficult bump in the road if Northwestern overlooks it), coupled with an eventual slate of typically lowly to middle-of-the-road Big Ten opponents (see: Illinois, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota) set the ‘Cats up for a hopeful season. Now knowing what they’ve got in a healthy offensive line and a rebirthed Ryan Hilinski — who, by the way, diced up a Nebraska secondary peopled with playmakers — there might be more Saturdays this fall worthy of tuning into an NU game than initially anticipated.
In the immediate future, it’ll be more important to carry this newfound confidence into matchups that are essentially must-wins. The Blue Devils and Redhawks are the weakest competition the Wildcats will encounter on the rest of their trek, and hopes at an appearance in the Big Ten title game will mandate beating these inferior troupes. Beating Southern-Illinois in tandem would have the Wildcats off to a 4-0 start, but the most daunting portion of their schedule will be far less forgiving.
Of course, this team is far from perfect. If they were, we’d have our sights on the College Football Playoff, not a conference championship. It’ll be important for Fitz and his staff to finesse the slightly unaligned elements of the team back into place. The first flaws that come to mind are not finishing on tackles, a lack of aggression on third-down calls and some failures in capitalizing on quarterback pressures.
So, back to the question. Where are we? Still rent-free in Scott Frost’s head. But also staring up the mountain of a season that lies ahead. It’s not a scared stare, just a focused one. This team has little reason to fear many of their remaining opponents, now knowing for themselves what they’re capable of. We’re simply at a point where Northwestern will have to weather their upcoming opponents before seeing how well they can traverse and jockey their way up the Mont de B1G.