NU taps into early potential with win

Northwestern returned to form, beating Iowa 28-17 at Ryan Field. The victory showcased the Wildcat team that started the season 6-0, not the one that scuffled in recent weeks.

Northwestern dominated on Saturday. As someone who predicted an Iowa win, I don't know whether to apologize or hide away from embarrassment.

Yes, James Vandenberg is not much of a quarterback at this stage of his career. For whatever reason, he regressed faster than the NU secondary at Syracuse. The practically nonexistent offensive line probably hurt his cause.

With Kain Colter and Venric Mark leading the way, the outcome was hardly in doubt. A pair of late Iowa touchdowns caused panic in some regions, but that was unjustified. The story from Saturday involved the NU running game and a convincing Big Ten victory. That's all.

Wildcats fans – with their built-in negativity – took to social media complaining about how this team is just two blown fourth-quarter leads away from 9-0. They miss the point.

It took those losses and the blown leads for the Cats to finally tap into their potential. With a chance to earn a statement win at Michigan two weeks from now, NU chose the perfect moment to flex its muscles.

If you watched the first eight weeks and can tell me you thought the Cats deserved an 8-0 record, you're a liar. Very few teams leave the midseason undefeated because surprise: it's difficult.

Most of NU's previous performances had been incomplete. Syracuse was almost a disaster and even Indiana inspired some anxious moments on the NU sideline. Even the Boston College game was ugly.

Fans can lament the fact that this team is still a long shot for a Big Ten title game appearance, or they can appreciate the 7-2 record. Probably wise to choose the latter. After the Iowa win, there should and will be a great deal of optimism looking forward. This team made major strides Saturday in nearly every department.

Pat Fitzgerald – famously closed-mouth about his personnel decisions – must have sat down with Mick McCall this week and made the right call. With Trevor Siemian, this offense was limited. Colter adds mobility and moves the ball with a flourish. That was on display Saturday. More important than his actual stats was the execution. He found the end zone. No need for Budzien, no problem.

Though seldom used, even the wide receivers have settled into their roles. Colter typically runs in their direction, and when called upon, they can make plays. They dialed up a fly route to Christian Jones, and he gained the separation necessary for a 47-yard touchdown. That's what should happen when opposing safeties cheat towards the line of scrimmage.

The pieces are coming together on defense as well. David Nwabuisi made a shocking 18 tackles and has emerged alongside Ibraheim Campbell as one of the steadiest defenders. Vandenberg probably heard about the undermanned secondary, but even the inexperienced corners kept pace on Saturday.

So wait: When was the last time NU played a solid two-way game? Do we count South Dakota? Fans can only ask their teams to improve throughout the season. And when Iowa rolled over, it served as proof that the Cats have done just that. This silenced the doubters, including me.

I don't believe in my own predictions anymore. Part of me thinks this team can pull off a stunner at Michigan. If NU plays a similar brand of football as it did Saturday, no doubt that might happen.

The word "identity" floated around these parts after a semi-controversial Kain Colter interview. As though on cue, NU managed to find one.

It required a process for NU to cobble together a gem Saturday. And don't look now: this team might find itself back in the Big Ten picture.

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