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Big Game Hunting: With Wisconsin next, is there any hope of another Northwestern turnaround?

Were the last two Wildcats teams poorly prepared coming out of training camp? Or were they shining examples of grinding, handling adversity, being resilient and all that good stuff? Maybe both. Also: Notre Dame-Virginia, Ohio State-Nebraska, Illinois-Minnesota and more.

Wisconsin v Northwestern
Wisconsin quarterback Jack Can is sacked during last year’s 31-17 loss to Northwestern.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Any chance Northwestern has another in-season transformation up its sleeve?

Even now, it’s hard to make sense of what the Wildcats pulled off in 2017 and 2018.

They were a disappointing 2-3 in the first of those campaigns — outscored by a total of 57 points in losses to Duke, Wisconsin and Penn State — before going on an impossible-to-see-coming 7-0 tear, all within the Big Ten, to end the regular season. A Music City bowl win against Kentucky topped off a 10-win season.

Last season brought an even uglier 1-3 start, followed by an even more impressive 7-0 run in conference play. The Wildcats got to play for the league title in Indianapolis for the first time and later upset Utah in the Holiday Bowl.

Worth mentioning: Even the 2016 Wildcats ended up 7-6, with a bowl victory, after losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State to start the season.

A dangerous pattern, to be sure. Were those teams poorly prepared coming out of training camp? Or were they shining examples of grinding, handling adversity, being resilient and all that good stuff?

Maybe both.

And now the question: Can the Wildcats, who are a deeply unimpressive 1-2, rewrite their story yet again?

Northwestern (+24) at No. 8 Wisconsin (11 a.m., Ch. 7) appears, on the surface, to be a game the Wildcats simply can’t win. A Hunter Johnson-led offense — statistically, one of the worst in the country — has gone nowhere, and now it runs into the big, bad Badgers (3-0), who lead the nation in total defense. The Badgers’ offense has been no less impressive, leading the nation in time of possession.

“Football is football,” said Johnson, the transfer quarterback who has yet to look comfortable in purple. “You’ll face adversity all the time, and it’s just about how you respond.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald is troubled by Johnson’s play. Meanwhile, he looks at Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and sees the best running back — maybe the best player — in college football. Two players, emblematic of two very different teams to this point.

The Wildcats sure are up against it here, it seems.

“Anybody who’s negative, I respect it and I don’t care,” Fitzgerald said. “We have to improve, and you do that by working.”

Perhaps another transformation is in store, as in 2017 and 2018?

“I’d like to say we have the same team right now,” the coach said. “But we don’t.”

An interesting admission. Go Bucky, 31-13.

In other Week 2 action:

No. 18 Virginia (+12½) at No. 10 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., Ch. 5): Former longtime BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, in Year 4 at UVA, has steadily built an impressive program. The Cavaliers (4-0) are solid against the run, lead the nation in sacks and have a veteran quarterback in Bryce Perkins. Not an easy day at the office for the Irish, who rally in the fourth quarter and win 31-24.

No. 21 USC (+10) at No. 17 Washington (2:30 p.m., Fox-32): How are the Trojans (3-1) doing it? Down to their third quarterback, Matt Fink, because of injuries, they’ve trying to start 3-0 in Pac-12 play. The Huskies (3-1) have played only one league game — at home against California — and surprisingly lost it. But never mind all that: UDub by 14.

Mississippi State (+10½) at No. 7 Auburn (6 p.m., ESPN): The Bulldogs (3-1) are really good at taking the air out of the football, a must against a Tigers team with so much speed, it’s almost unfair. But the Tigers (4-0) also are stellar along the offensive and defensive lines. If this one were in cowbell country … maybe. It ain’t. Auburn, 34-17.

No. 5 Ohio State (-17) at Nebraska (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Big Ten media bought all the way into the idea of Huskers coach Scott Frost pulling off a two-year transformation at his alma mater like the one that occurred on his watch at UCF. Nope. Bigger, stronger, faster Buckeyes (4-0) show the Huskers (3-1) just how far they are from the mountaintop — 45-21.

My favorite favorite: No. 20 Michigan (-27) vs. Rutgers (11 a.m., BTN): Getting the Scarlet Knights in the Big House is literally the best possible circumstance for a Wolverines team that needs to learn, after last weekend’s debacle at Wisconsin, to believe in itself again.

My favorite underdog: Purdue (+2) vs. Minnesota (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Whether the Boilermakers have No. 1 guy Elijah Sindelar or No. 2 guy Jack Plummer (no relation to Jake) firing the ball all over the field, it’s the sort of aerial display the Gophers — who’ve played nothing but nail-biters against non-Power 5 foes — have yet to have to deal with.

Last week: 3-3 straight-up, 2-4 (ouch) vs. the spread.

Season to date: 16-12 straight-up, 17-11 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

NORTHWESTERN AT NO. 8 WISCONSIN

The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7, 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 1-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Wisconsin 3-0, 1-0 Big Ten.

The story line: The Wildcats thumped the Badgers 31-17 last year in Evanston and are the defending Big Ten West champs — but are they entirely out of their depth here? Good luck containing all-everything running back Jonathan Taylor. Good luck committing to stop the run and still having to cover the best Wisconsin receiver group in years. And, of course, good luck to struggling Wildcats QB Hunter Johnson. Does he have the goods or doesn’t he?

The line: Badgers by 24.

Greenberg’s pick: Wisconsin, 31-13.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT VANDERBILT

The facts: 11 a.m., SEC Network, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 1-2, 0-0 MAC; Vanderbilt 0-3, 0-2 SEC.

The story line: Each team will be delighted to see the other after facing a brutal early schedule. NIU fans will recognize Vandy quarterback Riley Neal, a graduate transfer from Ball State who was 0-3 against the Huskies during his MAC career. Of greater concern than Neal is running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who played two seasons at Illinois before returning to his hometown of Nashville. First-year Huskies coach Thomas Hammock could use a nice road upset. Then again, who couldn’t?

The line: Commodores by 6½.

Greenberg’s pick: Vandy, 27-24.

NO. 18 VIRGINIA AT NO. 10 NOTRE DAME

The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.

The records: Virginia 4-0, ACC; Notre Dame 2-1.

The storyline: It’s all about protecting Ian Book, and what the Irish quarterback does with that protection. Twelve different Cavaliers players have gotten home to an opposing quarterback for the team that leads the nation in sacks, with 20. The most productive pass rusher has been senior linebacker Jordan Mack, who has five sacks. He isn’t related to the Bears’ Khalil Mack as far as we can determine, but it’ll be a lot more fun if we pretend he is.

The line: Irish by 12½.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 31-24.