A week ago, Northwestern claimed the throne atop the B1G West, following a sound-the-alarm, statement win against the Cornhuskers. A week ago, however, that throne wasn’t quite so triumphant, seeing as though four of the seven teams in the West division had yet to even have an opportunity to challenge the Wildcats’ reign.
A lot can change in a week. And a lot has changed in a week. Direct your attention to Purdue and Illinois — future opponents of NU, both of whom dropped their Week One slate. The Wisconsin Badgers, meanwhile, bared their teeth, chomping off the head of Illinois State, and Iowa...well the Hawkeyes won as well but that’s a different story. This dynamic-shifting action populated the Big Ten landscape this past weekend, but what didn’t change was Northwestern’s pristine standing within their division.
Now buckled into the driver’s seat, the ‘Cats control where they trek. Of course, 11 more weeks' worth of anxiety-inducing, rollercoaster-esque games lie ahead. Will Northwestern go undefeated? Probably not. But the point is that Pat Fitzgerald and co. can now venture down this grueling road of a season backed by the motivation that the pavement beneath their wheels will extend as far as they keep driving. In layman’s terms — for the moment — the sky’s the limit for the ‘Cats.
This newfound optimism meets its first challenger on Saturday in a potential trap game against the Duke Blue Devils. Though oddsmakers have the line slanted in Northwestern’s direction (NU -9.5), the men in blue will be strutting onto Ryan Field after hosting a shutout against Temple in Week One. Having been bounced out of Durham last year in a 30-23 loss, the Wildcats are in no position to glance past this game. A loss against Duke would practically negate the value and excitement that accompanied such a cohesive win against the Huskers almost two weeks ago.
Almost as important as the win itself is the way in which Northwestern handles business on Saturday. In Ireland, the offensive line — nay, the offensive wall — fortified the trenches. Will Peter Skorinski lead his unit to another lockdown performance? Against Nebraska, the defense generated three big-time turnovers. Will NU’s corners and linebackers scavenge for leather the way they did so well in Week 0? Most notably, Ryan Hilinski, who can now add “Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week” to his resume, seemed to be strides better than last year’s version of himself. Will the new Hilinski be a recurring character in this seemingly potent offense?
The team will address all of these queries soon enough. Aside from needing a win for standing's sake, the quality at which the ‘Cats play this weekend will be pivotal in assessing exactly how predictable Fitz’s squad will be over the course of the year.
It’s tempting to splatter bright purple labels that read “B1G West contenders” all over the place, but this team isn’t quite there yet. Perhaps buy some stickers that read “B1G West hopefuls” instead until Northwestern can offer a bit bigger of a sample size after Saturday’s duel against Duke.