Who’s the hottest team in the Big Ten that doesn’t play in the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan? It might be the team that plays in the Little House in Evanston.
Seemingly on the ropes when it lost running back Jeremy Larkin for medical reasons and fell to 1-3, Northwestern won its fourth consecutive game, beating Wisconsin 31-17 on Saturday.
With the victory, their 12th in 13 Big Ten games, the Wildcats (5-3, 5-1) are off to their best conference start in 18 years. And while they have plenty of work to do — notably a trip to Iowa — they are squarely in the hunt to make their first appearance in the Big Ten championship game.
“I think our team is starting to improve,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re growing up. There were some growing pains early, but these guys have had faith. They stayed the course, and they’re getting a reward for their effort.”
Northwestern also seems to be peaking at the right time for its shot at Notre Dame, which comes to Evanston next Saturday night.
“Somebody has to beat ’em. It might as well be us,’’ said freshman running back Isaiah Bowser, who ran for 117 yards on 34 carries.
With the Badgers (5-3, 3-2), Purdue and Iowa losing, the Cats are alone in first place in the Big Ten West.
Northwestern’s turnaround has been remarkable, at least on the outside looking in.
“It’s the same team,” said quarterback Clayton Thorson, who passed for 167 yards. “That’s the biggest thing. We stayed together. When everyone [outside] jumped off the ship, we knew what we needed to do to get it right. We knew we had it within our locker room. I’m really proud of these guys.”
The Cats took advantage of the absence of Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook. With their 25-5 starter sidelined with a concussion, sophomore Jack Coan made his first start. He went 20-for-31 for 158 yards, but his lost fumble set up the touchdown that put Northwestern in command at 31-10 with 12:50 left. Coan lacked the experience to lead a comeback in a tough situation.
“You hate to see anybody not play,” Fitzgerald said. “Anytime you lose a veteran quarterback like that, that’s a tough blow.”
That said, the Cats’ defense delivered in many ways. It came up with three turnovers that yielded 17 points. Northwestern gave up 14 points off its three turnovers, but they were not nearly as pivotal.
The defense also did a big-time job of shutting down Jonathan Taylor, who had his streak of eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games halted. Taylor finished with 46 yards on 10 carries and fumbled twice.
“Great job by our D-line today,” Fitzgerald said. “To hold J.T. to 46 yards, that’s a big accomplishment.”
The Cats also continued to build their own running game. Since managing a meager 68 yards on 77 rushes against Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, Northwestern has run for 128 yards against Rutgers and a season-high 182 yards against Wisconsin.
The running game is still a work in progress, but the Cats are looking a lot more capable of competing with Notre Dame now than they did four games ago.
“[At the beginning of the year,] we did not have the consistency we needed and the depth was too young to make an impact right away,” Fitzgerald said. “Now the depth is starting to improve. And we’re able to use the best motivator in world: the bench. You have to earn the privilege to be on the field.”
Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com