EVANSTON, Ill. — Now, Northwestern can see how it stacks up against the rest of the Big Ten.
The Wildcats open conference play against Indiana on Saturday with a perfect record through four games that includes three wins over BCS opponents. In a conference that's taken its share of hits so far, Northwestern is standing tall with the Hoosiers (2-1) up next.
"I think they should be pleased with the fact that we found a way to win four games," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And I think through that, we should be a very confident football team."
And why not?
The Wildcats are trying to go to 5-0 for the third time in five years after narrow wins over Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College along with a breather against South Dakota last week, and they own three of the Big Ten's six wins over BCS conference opponents and Notre Dame.
For a team that was fifth in the Legends division in the first year of divisional play, this is certainly a good start. It hasn't been a breeze, though.
It took a late touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian to Demetrius Fields to lift the Wildcats to a 42-41 victory at Syracuse, and they didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt and Boston College, before blowing out South Dakota, 38-7. Yet here they are, unbeaten and trying to establish themselves as a true force in the Big Ten.
As competitive as Northwestern has been over the last decade and a half, that's one area where it's fallen short. Still, the Wildcats are always dangerous even if they tend to start fading from the spotlight around this time of the year.
"They do a lot of things that I like in building a program," said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, an offensive coordinator under Randy Walker at Northwestern. "Pat was there with Coach (Gary) Barnett and they kind of flipped it. Coach Barnett coached there for seven seasons. They had two really good winning seasons where they won the championship and co-championship. When Coach (Randy) Walker came in I was a part of that. Pat came in at the tail part of that and I think he's got a little bit of Coach Barnett's thoughts with some of Coach Walker's thoughts on how to run the program — play good defense, stop the run, kick it well. They've won a boatload of close games for a long time. They've got a nice thing going on up there, so it's a good challenge."
It's one the Hoosiers will be facing with Cameron Coffman at quarterback, a position where they've taken some big bumps.
First, they lost starter Tre Roberson for the rest of the season when he broke his left leg in a 45-6 win over Massachusetts on Sept. 8.
Coffman suffered a hip pointer against Ball State the following week and left the game after completing 24 of 35 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. He's ready to go after using the off week to recover, but Wilson also said freshman Nate Sudfeld also earned the right to play. After all, he threw two scoring passes in the fourth quarter before Ball State drove for a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds to win 41-39.
Two quarterbacks would be a familiar site for Northwestern.
The Wildcats use Kain Colter and Siemian, and for that matter, they've been mixing it up at more than a few spots. One would be running back, where Venric Mark (123 yards against Vanderbilt, 117 vs. South Dakota) and Mike Trumpy (106 against Boston College) have combined to give Northwestern 100-yard rushers in three straight games.
Throw in Colter's contributions to the ground game, and the three are combining to average more than five yards per carry. Northwestern, meanwhile, is third in the league at 221.3 yards rushing per game.
"I think we're just a deeper team (all around) this year," Trumpy said. "There's so much competition at practice. It allows everyone to have a lot more fun and just compete. Competition brings out the best in everyone. Just the fact that you're seeing a lot more guys play is because we're really deep and there's just so much competition within the team."