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Northwestern Makes Unlikely Return to Ranks of Big Ten Contenders

Pat Fitzgerald

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern gave up 259 rushing yards to Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, and as a result, the Wildcats will face Minnesota next week in a game to lead the Big Ten West division.

As much as Northwestern’s struggles during the second half of last season defied explanation, so does the Wildcats’ return to the top half of the Big Ten.

In a checkered season for the Big Ten, Northwestern's turnaround has become one of the bright spots.

Few teams endured a more trying year than Northwestern. The Wildcats lost seven of their last eight last season, starting with a loss to Ohio State with ESPN College GameDay in town. Northwestern continued the misery with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois to open 2014.

The tally as of Sept. 6: Nine losses in 10 games, six by one score, two in overtime. Meanwhile, Northwestern became the focal point player compensation issues when players held a union vote during the summer. Then, Northwestern lost its top offensive player in Venric Mark and leader in receiving yards in Christian Jones.

If any team deserved some breaks, it was Northwestern.

The Wildcats have won three in a row, including victories over Big Ten powers Penn State and Wisconsin. That sets up an unlikely matchup of Big Ten West contenders when the Wildcats visit Minnesota.

“We are definitely playing with a lot more passion and a lot more physicality than we did earlier in the year,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told the media. “I don't have any issues with what we did earlier in the year, except what we were doing on Saturdays.”

So how did Northwestern turn this around?

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There’s certainly an element of Northwestern not being nearly as bad as its record would indicate over the last calendar year.

And it helps that Penn State and Wisconsin are hardly the complete teams Northwestern is used to seeing. Penn State’s offensive line was in shambles when the Wildcats won 29-6. 

On Saturday, Wisconsin showed it is little more than its star tailback. Despite 259 yards from Gordon, Northwestern never trailed on the way to a 20-14 win.

Northwestern's personnel is also starting to settle in after the roster has been in flux for more than a year.

After early struggles, Trevor Siemian is playing like a solid Big Ten quarterback, completing 36-of-66 passes for 440 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a pair of Big Ten wins.

On Saturday, freshman Justin Jackson had a rare workhorse game for a Northwestern running back. He ran for 162 yards on 33 carries against the Badgers.

At the same time, Northwestern is starting to make its own breaks. Earlier this season, the secondary was dealt a major blow when veteran safety Ibraheim Campbell was injured.

Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike stepped in to intercept three passes against Wisconsin.

“Nobody saw it coming,” Igwebuike told the media. “I mean, I didn't even see it coming.”

The same could be said of Northwestern’s spot at the top of the Big Ten.