Medline: Can’t help but believe in Wildcats

Nick Medline, Assistant Sports Editor

When I left the Carrier Dome on Sept. 1 after the worst college football win I had ever witnessed, the script ran through my head.

Northwestern had jumped out to a 22-point lead before casually giving up four touchdowns in about 15 minutes. Then, after driving the length of the field, quarterback Trevor Siemian faced a third-and-long situation. With no receivers open, he tucked the ball in and darted to the sidelines six yards from the marker. It was going to be fourth down.

As he reached the edge, though, a Syracuse defender nudged him out of bounds. Siemian exaggerated – as every quarterback should – and miraculously drew a personal foul penalty. On the next play, he found Demetrius Fields in the end zone for the game-winning score.

We can argue about the call for hours. The point is, the Wildcats got lucky. It felt like a loss. More specifically, it resembled a 2011 Boston Red Sox meltdown, if the NFL replacement refs swooped in to save the day.

So the rest of the season played out in my mind. All were understandably negative. I imagined a quarterback controversy, more 400-yard passing games for opposing teams and a middling 6-6 season. Maybe worse.

Almost four weeks later, I keep feeling the urge to tell Wildcats fans not to get excited. NU has knocked off three major conference opponents and sits at 4-0, although that hardly tells the story. The Vanderbilt offense – for whatever reason – went conservative late in game two. The Boston College football program practically died when Matt Ryan left for the NFL. As for South Dakota, I deadpanned that its players weigh less than I do.

I can’t lie. Something changed, and when looking at this team, I get a strange, rare feeling: this could be the year for a Big Ten title run. The keys to what happened begin on defense.

Very few casual football fans have heard the name Chi Chi Ariguzo. In typical NU fashion, an excellent player fails to receive significant attention— barring an outlandish Heisman publicity stunt a la Dan Persa. Ariguzo has been among the best defensive players in the Big Ten this season. He is incredibly versatile, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss, interceptions and pass deflections.

With dominant linebacker play – from David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby as well – this Cats defense plays to its strengths. Bottle up the run game, trust the maligned secondary to avoid giving up deep receptions and rely on pressure from a solid front four.

Few expected this offense to struggle, but with the emergence of Venric Mark, it finally added a second dimension. With his elusiveness and big-play ability, Mark revived the once-dormant Cats rushing attack. Just add two capable quarterbacks – with very similar stat lines – and the deepest group of receivers in the conference.

After a disastrous first few weeks, the Big Ten appears to be wide open. The jury is out on divisional foes Michigan and Michigan State, Nebraska failed to deliver on its hype and Iowa fell off the table after two home losses.

I feel comfortable saying that NU is an unimpressive 4-0. But I guess that’s why they play the games. The script never unfolds as expected.