Another week has passed with Pat Fitzgerald still far from content with the play of his Northwestern team, and rightfully so. Sure the Wildcats are 3-0 , knocking off three major-conference opponents, but the team has not earned any style points along the way.
It was Northwestern's much-maligned defense which faltered in the season-opener. During the Wildcats' second and third games, the offense sputtered, leaving more reasons for concern than celebration.
During practice this week, Fitzgerald and the Northwestern coaching staff stressed competition at each position, pointing toward the starters to step up their game. The hope is that the pieces will click together each Saturday.
NU has yet to display its best football this season; encouraging news, but also a bit troublesome that the team's engine hasn't full started.
A game with South Dakota is just what the doctor ordered for Northwestern.
It can be awkward to play an FCS opponent. When meeting with the media, each player and coach must paint their foe as the '85 Bears while pretending they aren't paying for the chance to pound them. In the meantime, the team must maintain focus on the task at hand.
Every major program hosts a cupcake during non-conference play. It's only fair that Northwestern does, too.
The Wildcats' meeting with South Dakota couldn't come at a better time. NU has survived with its pre-conference training wheels on; now it can move full speed ahead on two wheels entering Big Ten play.
An ideal Saturday for Northwestern would be to post a large lead over the Coyotes, get the offense and defense clicking, rest the starters for the second half, and hand out valuable playing experience to reserve players.
If all goes according to plan, look for the young "Big 'Cats" to get some reps; Matt Frazier, Geoff Mogus, Paul Jorgensen, and Eric Olsen deserve a chance to play. Same with rising receivers like Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Cam Dickerson, and Cermak Bland.
True freshman safety Traveon Henry turned some heads in preseason camp and has now worked his way into a role. So have Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jarrell Williams, among others. If the starters can take care of business, look for these rising names to take the field for meaningful game reps.
With all due respect out to South Dakota, this is a game Northwestern should win, and handily. That doesn't mean it can sleepwalk through the contest.
The Wildcats have a great opportunity to change the tone set in the first three games. Saturday's matchup with South Dakota offers the chance for NU to put the pieces together as it moves into Big Ten play.
That's just what this team needs.