The Cats could have mailed it in at 0-2, but they hung on. Could a bowl game be in the picture?

Teddy Kider

It’s tough to put down a team that won two of three overtime games, snapped a disturbing 33-year streak and assembled a 3-3 record against the nation’s 17th-toughest schedule.

But when it comes to Northwestern football, most people are doubters.

They don’t care that NU entered the season minus its only offensive weapon from last year, running back Jason Wright, and is now ranked 19th in the country in total offense.

And it doesn’t matter to them that the Wildcats’ defensive line is 49th in the nation, with NU’s best bet at an NFL player, defensive end Loren Howard, sitting injured on the sidelines for the first six games.

After a 2-1 start to the conference slate, NU is tied with Purdue and Iowa for fourth place in the Big Ten.

But the question is if NU can keep its momentum and two-game winning streak intact in a second-half schedule that could be tougher than the first six games.

The Cats will travel to No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 13 Michigan, Penn State and Hawaii in the next six weeks, in addition to hosting No. 12 Purdue and Illinois.

And because of its unusual 12-game schedule, NU must win four of its last six games to be bowl eligible at 7-5.

It would have been easy to call it a year after a double-overtime heartbreaker at Texas Christian and a home loss to Arizona State, which gave the Cats an 0-2 start. But NU came roaring back after an embarrassing 43-17 defeat at then No. 17 Minnesota.

In overtime wins against then-No. 7 Ohio State (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten) and Indiana, (2-4, 0-3) the Cats displayed drive and determination in the final seconds.

NU benefitted from coach Randy Walker’s decision not to split carries between junior running back Terrell Jordan and senior Noah Herron.

Since that strategy disrupted NU’s offense against Minnesota, Herron has carried the ball 62 times for 310 yards in two games, proving to be the Cats’ main offensive threat.

The Cats’ secondary came up big against the Buckeyes and Hoosiers, but NU’s 112th-ranked passing defense must improve to beat teams like Michigan, Purdue and Hawaii — all deep threats.

Kicker Brian Huffman also will have to keep it together, avoiding the 1-for-6 and 1-for-3 field goal performances he turned in against Texas Christian and Indiana.

After two big wins, the Cats look confident. Although it’s unrealistic to think NU can win all of its remaining games, the team should have at least an outside shot against all six squads.

Most preseason polls and magazines predicted a ninth-place finish for the Cats.

But every player on the team, especially quarterback Brett Basanez, has improved since last year’s 6-7 performance, and NU’s program is in the process of building off a Motor City Bowl berth.

With the constant improvement they’ve been showing, a tighter defense and a little luck, the Cats could sneak into a bowl for a second consecutive year.

Reach Teddy Kider at [email protected]