Ryan: Easy win a sign of progress for Wildcats

Dan Ryan, Assistant Sports Editor

On Saturday, Northwestern beat Maine by a lot of points. That story isn’t particularly interesting or exciting. Expected, really.

What’s interesting is that I wrote the above paragraph with 8 minutes and 33 seconds left in the first quarter. At no point between the revealing of the schedule and the game against Maine did I ever think to myself, “Northwestern could go into Ohio State at 3-1.”

Now when’s the last time that happened in your relationship with the Wildcats? Don’t think of it as, “Of course the No. 17 team in the nation should bury an FCS school. That’s how this works.” Think of it more as you watching a Northwestern sporting event without feelings of dread, anxiety and unrelenting gastric discomfort.

Truly innovative stuff going down at Ryan Field. I’m into it.

You may be rolling your eyes that this phenomenon should be the subject of a column. Headline: “Good team beats not-so-good teams fairly easily.” But keep in mind this is a squad that needed an incredible fourth-quarter rally last season to beat Syracuse and found itself down a score to Vanderbilt at the half. So it’s not like this season is business as usual.

It’s easy to see the football culture changing in Evanston. There’s an interest and excitement surrounding this team that simply hasn’t been there since the mid-90s. Students expect to win, the Big Ten Championship is talked about as a realistic scenario, and the intensity and anticipation for the Ohio State matchup is electrifying. College Gameday will probably take notice.

That shift in attitude is largely a reflection of a program at a crossroads. After getting the Bowl Monkey off their backs last year, the Cats have an opportunity to build off of a successful season and establish themselves as a program that’s here to stay. That all starts with comfortably beating the teams you should.

Four games in, NU has handled two solid BCS teams without really being threatened. The Cats have managed to work well under these new expectations without suffering a deflating letdown or even a game that makes one question whether they can be competitive in the Big Ten. And the fact that they’ve pulled this off without their biggest playmaker, All-American running back and return man extraordinaire Venric Mark, is all the more impressive. His return will only make this team more dangerous.

Sure, the real test comes to town in the form of the No. 4 Buckeyes, and NU hasn’t done enough to make us feel like that game is any less of a mountain to climb. But you get the feeling it will be competitive because this team is just flat-out talented.

As I’m finishing up, the game still hasn’t ended. No one watching from the stands, press box or sports bars is worried, and that marks four straight weeks with nothing but positive, Zen-like vibes surrounding this team. That has to be a new record, and something tells me Ohio State coach Urban Meyer might have more on his plate come Oct. 5 than he may currently suspect.

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