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Big-Game Hunting: Will Northwestern look like a first-place team at Rutgers?

funny thing has happened to a Northwestern team that spent September bashing its head against a brick wall, losing at home in succession to Duke (come on, man), Akron (spit take) and Michigan (OK, that’s cool).

A little more than halfway through October, the Wildcats, only 3-3 overall, sit atop the Big Ten West with a 3-1 record.

This is a first-place team? Seriously?

Well, yes. And Northwestern (-20) at Rutgers (11 a.m., BTN, 720-AM) should come and go without changing that. It’ll get much tougher after that, with games against West heavies Wisconsin and Iowa up next on the conference slate, but 4-1 will look mighty nice in the standings for a week. That’s assuming, of course, the Wildcats don’t bash their heads against a wall for three hours in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is looking to get his team rolling early at heavy underdog Rutgers. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

How woeful are the Scarlet Knights? Put it this way: They’ve lost all four of their conference games — by an average score of 37-11 — and that doesn’t even count their 41-point defeat at Kansas and their 29-point defeat at home against Buffalo.

But anyone who has watched Pat Fitzgerald’s team in September would agree that there’s no such thing as a guaranteed ‘‘W.’’

‘‘To me, we’re not playing very well right now,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’re not playing very consistent football. My biggest concern is us. We’ve got to be better up front on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to tackle better. We’ve got to find a way to establish some semblance of a rushing attack.’’

Gee, is that all? The list of NU’s imperfections might be long, but one development that might offset them all is the slick, steady, healthy play of quarterback Clayton Thorson. Nine-plus months after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Wildcats’ bowl game last season, the senior was shaky at the start of this season. Specifically, he wasn’t driving off his right (rear) leg as he loaded up to pass.

That has changed during the last couple of games. Thorson was spectacular in NU’s overtime victory last Saturday against Nebraska, which featured a 99-yard touchdown march late in the fourth quarter.

The Big 10: Northwestern — refusing to slip into irrelevance — leading B1G West
Northwestern edges Nebraska 34-31 after epic drive to overtime

‘‘More than anything, just the confidence is back,’’ Fitzgerald said.

At his best, Thorson is as good a quarterback as the West has. Actually, his best is better than that. When Thorson plays ‘‘from the floor up,’’ as Fitzgerald puts it — surveying the field and driving off that leg confidently — he takes the form of the future NFL mainstay many think he’ll be. He’s a big, strong, athletic guy with major arm talent.

When those Wisconsin and Iowa games come around, Thorson’s talent will give his team a chance.

‘‘All our goals are still ahead of us,’’ defensive tackle Jordan Thompson said.

Rutgers, meanwhile? It has utterly no chance.

‘‘We know we’re going to get their ‘A’ game, and they’re going to play a great game against us,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Maybe in some alternate universe. Look, it’s not the biggest game for NU, but it’s the next one. And when you’re in first place, that’s mighty important. All Cats, 41-17.

Five Saturday matchups that can’t get here soon enough:

No. 6 Michigan (-7) at No. 24 Michigan State (11 a.m., Fox-32): The Spartans have won eight of 10 in the rivalry series since former Wolverines star Mike Hart dismissed them as ‘‘little brother.’’ None of those games involved Shea Patterson, though. The Big Ten’s most-talked-about newcomer has raised the bar at quarterback in Jim Harbaugh’s program. A week after Michigan State’s game-winning drive at Penn State, Patterson leads one of his own in East Lansing. Hail to the 27-24 victors.

No. 16 North Carolina State (+17½) at No. 3 Clemson (2:30 p.m., ESPN): The Wolfpack are no fluky unbeaten. They have a top quarterback in Ryan Finley, explosive weapons and experience all over the field. Remember their near-upset of the Tigers last season? It was a 38-31 classic, and Finley played like an NFL first-rounder. Yeah, this is still Clemson, though. Tigers by 10.

No. 22 Mississippi State (+6½) at No. 5 LSU (6 p.m., ESPN): The imbalance through recent years between the Bulldogs at home and the Bulldogs on the road has been severe. (Prime example: a 28-7 defeat at Kentucky in September.) Give me the Tigers, who bombed Georgia by 20 last week in Death Valley, in a second consecutive eye-opening performance.

No. 2 Ohio State (-13) at Purdue (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Boilermakers might be the best 3-3 team in the country. The big question: Can their defense continue to get stops into the fourth quarter? This one’s a tossup — for three quarters — before the Buckeyes pull away and barely cover.

No. 12 Oregon (+3) at No. 25 Washington State (6:30 p.m., Fox-32): On the one hand, the Ducks’ defensive front — soft no more, pal — might dominate this game. On the other, the Ducks’ defensive backs might be spun like tops into the ground by Wazzu’s next-level passing attack. Good thing the Cougars can’t run the ball at all. Quack Attack in an upset.

My favorite favorite: No. 14 Kentucky (-11) vs. Vanderbilt (6:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Wildcats have earned more respect than this.

My favorite underdog: Indiana (+15½) vs. No. 18 Penn State (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Hoosiers’ offense can go throw-for-throw with Penn State’s. Run-for-run, maybe not. Nittany Lions by single digits.

Last week: 4-3 straight up, 3-4 against the spread.

Season to date: 33-14 straight up, 25-21-1 against the spread.



The facts: 11 a.m., FS1, 670-AM.

The records: Illinois 3-3, 1-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 4-2, 2-1 Big Ten.

The storyline: Who’s more ticked off, the Illini after being embarrassed 46-7 at home by Purdue or the Badgers after being outed as pretenders in a 38-13 debacle at Michigan? It probably doesn’t matter because the ability gap between the teams remains awfully large.

Illinois coach Lovie Smith called his team’s play against the Boilermakers a ‘‘collapse.’’ And that was before he started listing his concerns with his defense.

‘‘Run defense, pass defense, taking the ball away more, doing better on thirds downs, not giving up the big play,’’ he said.

It’s exhausting just thinking about all that. And it’s exhausting thinking about how difficult it’ll be for Smith’s defense to handle Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor — another 200-yard day, anyone? — and quarterback Alex Hornibrook a week after he looked terrible throwing the ball. Perfectionist coach Paul Chryst will have high expectations for his entire unit.

The line: Wisconsin by 25.

Greenberg’s pick: Wisconsin, 45-10.