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Where are We Wednesday, Week 4: Opportunity

Northwestern lost its way for two weeks, then found it for 60 minutes last Saturday. Sixty more against an admittedly-challenging Nebraska team await.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where the team currently sits in the big picture of things, whether that be the Big Ten West, the Big Ten or even the nation. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that location changes every week based on what both the team and the teams around them do. Here’s the Week 4 edition.

1-2 | 1st in Big Ten - West

That’s what ESPN’s Northwestern page reads. At 0-0, Northwestern neither leads nor trails anyone in the Big Ten West. That’s the same for every other team in the division.

“Now everybody’s back to undefeated,” Pat Fitzgerald said after his team’s win over Duke. “You can say what you want, but everyone’s undefeated in Big Ten play. Records start over for a reason.”

There are lots of issues with this team in its current iteration. Clayton Thorson still has his struggles with accuracy, especially when he has to deal with immediate pressure. The offensive line allows too much pressure and doesn’t open enough holes for Justin Jackson, meaning back-to-back sub-100 yard games for the first time since Michigan and Iowa last year.

Defensively, the team was improved from what it had displayed for the first two weeks. It created two timely turnovers, both of which came with Duke moving into Northwestern territory with an opportunity to take the lead. Two young cornerbacks and a backup safety teamed with one of the Big Ten’s best safeties to effectively shut down Duke’s passing offense. But there are still some issues up front; Daniel Jones was often afforded a lot of time to throw, and Mike Hankwitz was forced to be more aggressive, sending extra men on the pass rush often. It didn’t hurt the Wildcats against a team led by an inaccurate redshirt freshman signal caller, but it remains to be seen if the strategy can continue to work well against a slew of talented, veteran Big Ten quarterbacks in the weeks to come, starting with Tommy Armstrong Jr. this weekend.

The biggest plus, undoubtedly, was the semi-return of Anthony Walker to his stardom. He recorded five tackles, including two for a loss, a sack, and a forced and recovered fumble. It was the fumble that brought back the images of him flying around last year making the plays that most guys of his stature simply can’t make. After the game, it was revealed that Walker missed significant preseason time with a knee issue. He can only continue to get better and better as he moves further away from that issue. His performance both on the field and off it—the team held a players-only meeting following the Illinois State loss, one that Walker was vocal in—was key in putting the Wildcats in the win column.

“It’s the start of a new season,” Walker told Inside NU. “Going into Duke week, we knew we had to get a win. We had to play desperate; we had to play like that was our Big Ten championship as we get ready for Big Ten football.”

So Northwestern won its “Big Ten championship,” a game it absolutely had to win, not only for bigger-picture goals but for confidence purposes as well. It showed that this team can win football games, even over poor (or at least very beatable) opponents, something it hadn’t done through two weeks. After losing two games Northwestern very well could have—and perhaps should have—won, the Wildcats did win a game they could have and should have won.

“You watch some of the other teams, everyone’s not perfect right now,” Justin Jackson said of the Big Ten West. “It’s wide open.”

He’s spot on. There are imperfections everywhere, especially on the team he plays for. And this weekend, his imperfect team welcomes one of three teams in the Big Ten West with a perfect record: Nebraska.

It’s a difficult matchup—the Huskers trounced their two non-Power 5 opponents to open the season and then defeated Oregon to move into the Top 25—but one that presents Northwestern with a great opportunity. The Huskers are tough, but they’re not unbeatable. Of the past five matchups between the two teams, four have been decided by three points or fewer, with Northwestern victorious in half of them, including the Wildcats’ 30-28 victory in Lincoln last year. Lots of key characters return from that game, including both quarterbacks, both running backs and a host of wide receivers for both teams. Northwestern is a big underdog—at least a touchdown (at home) by most betting lines, and perhaps it should be even greater—but again, there isn’t a difference between these teams that cannot be overcome.

And while Mike Riley’s squad is miles closer to perfection than Pat Fitzgerald’s is right now, they both compete in an imperfect Big Ten West, a division in which one contender, Iowa, lost to an FCS squad last week at home (sound familiar?) and another, Wisconsin, scraped by at home and had to use two different quarterbacks to do so, arguably looking worse in the process.

The purpose of this weekly series is to look at the big picture and how Northwestern fits in it. But right now, that’s hard to gauge, considering how wide open the Wildcats’ division is. And despite a nightmarish start to the season and an encouraging and positive but less-than-overwhelmingly-inspiring effort to get into the win column last weekend, Northwestern truly has a chance to distance itself from that start this weekend against what is currently the best team in its division.

Opportunity beckons this weekend, and if Northwestern can take advantage of it—which will take the Wildcats’ most complete and best team effort—Fitzgerald’s team can very much be in the thick of things. For a team that has struggled as much as Northwestern has through three weeks, that’s just about as much as you can ask for.