Northwestern enters its long-awaited bye week with a 7-2 record. If a Cat fan saw just that record, it would be something to celebrate. But it's the manner in which the Wildcats have reached their bye week which is all the talk.
There has been a lot to gather throughout the first nine games, and the stretch run will prove even more crucial. PurpleWildcats gives a look at what we have learned and what to expect.
The Cardiac Cats live, but ...
Northwestern's hard-fought battles aren't cute anymore. It's a sign of changed times. Now, the Wildcats are expected to win each game. When that's not the case, the team is criticized. It's a positive sign, marking higher expectations. That's the way it should be. Northwestern is supposed to be a perennial Big Ten title contender.
So when the Wildcats blew fourth-quarter leads to Penn State and Nebraska -- their only two losses on the season -- fans were outraged. Shots were fired at the once-untouchable Pat Fitzgerald. Many questioned how the team could let this happen.
To Fitzgerald's credit, he has welcomed the criticism; something he has rarely faced in the past. Northwestern is relevant -- both in its home market of Chicago, the nation's third-largest media market, and across the country. Fitzgerald is facing the heat any big-time coach does for a loss.
Fitzgerald has raised the bar for Northwestern football. With that, in defeat, comes pressure to do more. So how did Northwestern allow 22-unanswered points to Penn State, and how did it allow Nebraska to overcome a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit? What the fans want to know, who do you blame?
That's all up for debate. The fact that it is debatable is a good thing. Northwestern fans are hungry -- more than ever before. Losses are no longer acceptable, different from the days where wins were few and far between. The label of Cardiac Cats is no longer welcomed, not unless they come out on top.
Venric Mark is impressive
It appeared to be a fluke when it started. During bowl practices, Venric Mark was mixed into a package to surprise Texas A&M. Then, he was the only running back with experience during the spring. So what was he doing on the depth chart during the summer? He was the starter.
Nobody expected Venric Mark to be the starting running back, and it was impossible to imagine that he would be such a tremendous success. At 5-foot-8, Mark has surprised opposing defenses, and just about everyone else.
The greatest surprise, though, is that Northwestern has become a run-first offense, with Mark and Colter as the biggest weapons. The zone-read attack has embarrassed some talented defenses. NU now has a rushing attack, and it's really fun to watch.
The defense is actually really good
Mike Hankwitz was called before the media during preseason camp. To the side, Pat Fitzgerald shook his head in disgust. He knew what was coming for his defensive coordinator.
Nobody expected Northwestern's defense to impress this season. The unit was written off from the start. Hankwitz was under tremendous fire following a disappointing 2011 season. Once again, during that August day, Hankwitz had to explain why this season would be different.
The campaign started with plenty of concern as Syracuse rallied back from a large hole to lead Northwestern in the final minutes, not before a Cat drive for the win. The secondary looked awful and fans were concerns, just as in years past. However, the group offered a turnaround in the following games.
Thus far, Northwestern's defense has been magnificent. The run defense ranks as one of the nation's premier units while the pass defense continues to improve. There are many reasons for excitement moving forward, too. Names like Tyler Scott, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby, Nick VanHoose, and Ibraheim Campbell will return next season.
NU has been carried by tremendous play from its defense, and that will certainly be needed in the final three contests.
The two-quarterback thing doesn't work
It was a secret up Mick McCall's sleeve. The Indiana Hoosiers first learned all about it. When Northwestern posted a program-record 702 yards of offense, led by both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the offense looked unstoppable. Then, Penn State happened.
Northwestern's two-quarterback system proved to be a disaster, namely due to misusage of the rotation. It became far too predictable; Kain Colter would be the runner, Siemian would be the passer. The Nittany Lions weren't fooled. Nor was Minnesota or Nebraska.
The Wildcats enjoyed success with a two-quarterback system in 2011 with Colter complimenting primary starter Dan Persa. This season, though, Colter filled Persa's large shoes. Siemian is the odd man out.
NU made swift adjustments in its win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, with Colter let free to run wild over a weak defense. McCall must let Colter, and only him, lead the Cats to victory.
Who's the Legend?
The Wildcats may not be in the drivers seat for a trip to Indianapolis, but they're at least riding shotgun.
Nebraska controls its own destiny, with a 3-1 Big Ten record and wins over Northwestern and Michigan. The Wolverines own the same record, but lost their contest with the Cornhuskers, falling behind in the standings. NU needs Nebraska to lose its grasp at the top, and a victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor would prove to be critical.
At worst, Northwestern has locked up a bowl game in sunshine. That isn't the program's goal, though. An appearance in the Big Ten title game remains attainable. The rest of the ride should be fun.