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Northwestern wins third straight, beating Indiana 24-14

Momentum is a strange and fickle thing. It can change with the drop of a bunt single, as the Cubs discovered in Game 4.

It also can change with a frustrated coach vowing not to accept defeat any more.

After Northwestern lost to Nebraska and fell to 1-3, Pat Fitzgerald said, “They better get ready to get their rear ends coached off. . . they better buckle up and start hydrating.’’ Since then, NU has won three straight.

Following up on impressive wins at Iowa and Michigan State, the Wildcats socked it to Indiana 24-14 before a homecoming crowd of 35,417 on a lovely autumn Saturday.

Northwestern cornerback Montre Hartage, top, intercepts a pass against Indiana wide receiver Luke Timian, bottom, during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty) ORG XMIT: ILPB114

“Baseball theme tonight, right?’’ Fitzgerald said. “I have to mix my pitches up with this group. It’s a fun group, but I’m earning my keep.’’

Credit tough love.

“I brought our leadership council together and said, `This is going to get really nasty,’ ’’ Fitzgerald said in a raspy voice. “I don’t have a cold. I don’t have nasal issues. I have a Tuesday-Wednesday practice issue. That’s why my voice is the way it is.’’

With this three-game winning streak, NU (4-3, 3-1) has put itself in position to accomplish a lot this fall. Even a first trip to the Big Ten championship game is not out of the question if it keeps playing like this.

The Cats will go to mighty Ohio State on Saturday eager to take their best shot at extending their five-game winning streak in Big Ten road games.

“You saw how we went in there against Michigan State and Iowa, and just focused on what’s in front of us,’’ said quarterback Clayton Thorson. “It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of people are there. All that matters is that 100 yards. When we do that, we can be pretty good.’’

Led by Thorson, who threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns, NU jumped on Indiana (3-4, 1-3) early for a 24-3 halftime lead. His favorite target, Austin Carr, caught seven balls for 125 yards and a TD.

In the second half, when the offense managed only 37 yards, the Cats weathered some precarious moments with stellar defense, including an acrobatic interception by Kyle Queiro. It was NU’s second pick of the day, the game’s only turnovers.

That’s a tribute to the fundamentals that Fitz and his staff have been yelling themselves hoarse about.

“I’m not an exotic guy,’’ the NU coach said. “We believe you win with fundamentals. We were not doing that at all in the first two games. You can pout or you can fix it.’’

His players are so bought in that Fitzgerald, who was “furious’’ that someone had forgotten to lock the door to the defensive-backs room, discovered his DBs engaged in a late video session on Thursday.

“We were right around the 20-hour rule, so I right away said, `Goodbye,’ ’’ Fitzgerald said. “But I was very happy. It’s a grind, but they have to keep doing it. I’m very proud of our upper-classmen. They’re getting it done.’’

The difference between 1-3 Northwestern and 4-3 Northwestern?

“We’re a pretty young team, and we were playing young,’’ junior safety Godwin Igwebuike said. “Over the last few weeks, we realized either we step it up now or we let it roll downhill.’’

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com