It went exactly as scripted. Northwestern jumped to a sizable lead while executing better than it has this season, then shifted to cruise control with reserves at the wheel. The Wildcats moved to 4-0 on the season with a 38-7 victory over South Dakota.
Northwestern's play in its first three games was nothing to celebrate, aside from the outcome on the scoreboard. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald challenged his team to improve in practice, stressing good enough isn't enough.
A matchup with FCS foe South Dakota was just what Northwestern needed. On Saturday, the Wildcats made the plays they were failing to in previous weeks, offering positive signs entering the conference-opener against Indiana.
"I thought we had a very professional-like approach and performance today," Fitzgerald said to the media. "Now it's time to get back in it and prepare for a team that has had a week off to prepare for us."
NU has carried a business-like demeanor through its four victories, and that was evident in Saturday's game. The Wildcats are confident, but not getting a big head.
"We don't want to get too high, but we don't want to get too low," said running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns. "Coach Fitz always talk about being confident in our abilities; you need to be confident in your teammates. We're 100 percent confident but we're not going to go into a game thinking we're going to automatically win."
The mindset in which the Wildcats have carried is based on the lessons taught by the Navy SEALS, which have been working with the team since preseason camp.
The SEALS handed Northwestern lessons of teamwork and handling success, and the team has embraced those words.
"Those guys are the best at what they do and if they complete a mission successfully, they are not going to jump for joy and give each other high-fives," said quarterback Kain Colter. "That's what they expect out of themselves. These first four games we have had, we have expected to win and show the entire nation what Northwestern football is going to bring to the table this season."
NU got right to its mission on Saturday, setting the tone right out of the gates. Venric Mark marched 47 yards on the second play from scrimmage, then would cap a 75-yard drive with his first of three touchdowns on the ballgame.
After Northwestern's rejuvenated defense forced a three-and-out on its first series, the offense drove 54 yards in six plays, finishing with a five-yard touchdown run by senior running back Tyris Jones.
It was Venric Mark who got the Wildcats started strong and there was no looking back.
"We just came in with a lot of energy," Mark said. "Coach [Matt] MacPherson is a great coach and he got us ready for the game. I was jut really pumped up and the o-line did a heck of a job blocking."
Northwestern continued to pile on. Venric Mark added his second and third touchdown runs in the second quarter. At the start of the third quarter, Treyvon Green scampered 33 yards for another score.
With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, Northwestern was able to rest its starters and offer some young Wildcats their first playing time. Redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Oliver made his first appearance and connected on his only passing attempt, a 13-yard completion to walk-on superback Doug Diedrick.
"I'm happy for a lot of our young me that got the opportunity to go out and play today," Fitzgerald said. "They sacrifice everyday, whether they're on the scout teams or pushed down a little bit in the depths for this reason or that reason. To have them get an opportunity to play in from of their family and friends is great."
Northwestern couldn't have asked for better in its victory. A comfortable win, no injuries, and even a few style points along the way. The focus, now, turns to Big Ten play.
"Are we going to really get after it and really prepare the way championship teams do, the way mature teams do," asked Fitzgerald. "Or are we just going to be fat and sassy that we won a couple of games here in the non-conference?"
If Northwestern continues to possess its workmanlike attitude, future success may be in store.