Northwestern playing like a top-20 team as schedule eases

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Northwestern playing like a top-20 team as schedule eases

September 9, 2013, 7:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

After back-to-back wins over opponents from the Pac-12 and ACC, the schedule appears to be easing up over the next two weeks for a Northwestern team that has looked very, very good so far.

But with a game against Western Michigan up next, don't expect Pat Fitzgerald to concede that point.

"You have to always expect you're going to get the opponent's A-game and they're going to prepare the right way and come in here ready to play. So our focus is always on us. It's inward, it's the way we prepare," Fitzgerald said Monday. "There's nobody walking around here feeling like we've arrived, I can promise you that. We are far from the team that we're capable of being in all three phases."

While the attitude is a good one to have, the outside perception seems to be growing that the Wildcats certainly have arrived. After 10 wins, including a bowl win, last year, Northwestern is being looked upon with more expectations than ever before. And so far, the Cats have met them, going 2-0 and rising to No. 17 in the most recent AP poll.

[MORE: Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 2]

They topped Cal, 44-30, in an opening-week road victory before coming home last week and pouncing all over Syracuse, winning 48-27. That's a lot of offensive fireworks, led by Fitzgerald's dual-QB system that's firing on all cylinders. Against the Orange, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 375 passing yards and five total touchdowns.

And, even though star running back Venric Mark was still sidelined Saturday with an injury sustained in Week 1, a new offensive playmaker emerged in wide receiver Tony Jones, who hauled in nine passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.

And Fitzgerald had nothing but positives to describe the latest Wildcat to pop up as a big-time contributor to a well-oiled offensive machine.

"I really think he's an All-Big-Ten-level player, and where it goes from there, we'll see" Fitzgerald said. "When we recruited him, we knew he would be a dynamic playmaker. He was, we thought in recruiting, an impact player in what we do. He's really lived up to that every day, it's just unfortunate that he's had some injuries. So we're very happy as a program for him. ... A guy who has had to battle through adversity, injuries, things that are out of his control. He's handled it well, his attitude has been great, and now he's kind of seeing the fruits of that labor."

[RELATED: Illini flying high heading into big test vs. Washington]

And the offensive highlights figure to continue in Week 3 against a Western Michigan team that has lost each of its first two games. That includes an opening-week defeat against Michigan State, one of Northwestern's Big Ten conference-mates. It's that game Fitzgerald can use as a bit of a measuring stick when it comes to preparing for the visiting Broncos.

"You just have to pop in the tape and see that Western's a very, very talented football team. It's not like they don't have guys that can go out and play and play very well," Fitzgerald said. "They're very sound, schematically, with what they do, and their guys are playing incredibly hard. Outside of a couple mistakes early in the Michigan State game, that game's a totally different outcome. So we've got our hands full."

The Spartans only beat Western Michigan by 13 points in Week 1, and though Michigan State is having tons of problems on the offensive side of the ball, Fitzgerald might be on to something, as the Broncos allowed just 12 points to the MSU offense. The Wildcats will be the second of three Big Ten teams the Broncos face this season.

So as the schedule briefly lightens up for the Wildcats — after Western Michigan, it's FCS opponent Maine before the big conference-opener vs. Ohio State — Fitzgerald isn't taking anyone lightly, nor is his team acting with any superiority.

But make no mistake, it's earned its top-20 ranking.

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