Iowa Football

Northwestern found a way to be in control of Big Ten West ... somehow

Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 31, 2018. Notre Dame won, 31-21. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 31, 2018. Notre Dame won, 31-21. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The leader of the Big Ten’s West Division and odds-on favorite to win it dropped back-to-back home games in September to Duke and Akron.

It had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat Rutgers three weeks ago. Rutgers!

It averages 24.7 points per game and gives up 24.4. It doesn’t come close to leading the conference in most team statistical categories and ranks dead last, in fact, in rushing.

Its top running back, Jeremy Larkin, was forced to retire from football in late September due to cervical stenosis. Among the other myriad of injuries it has incurred is one to its kicker.

Despite all of that, the Northwestern Wildcats come into Kinnick Stadium for Saturday’s game against Iowa alone in first place with a 5-1 conference record. It’s really a two-game spread considering Northwestern has beaten Wisconsin and Purdue, the teams tied for second.

“Our kids have been dealt a lot of adversity, and I’m proud of them,” said Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We haven’t pouted, we haven’t used it as excuses. I think they’ve really grinded and worked to get better. We know what we have in front of us, and the biggest challenge for us is us. Just keep working to get better. We know we’re going to play great opponents moving forward, we know we’re going to get their best shot.”

Northwestern (5-4 overall) has never won a Big Ten division championship. It’s on the precipice of getting one thanks to being able to do something Iowa has not this season: win close games.

It began with a 31-27, season-opening victory at Purdue. The Wildcats won at Michigan State in early October, 29-19, then eked past Nebraska in overtime the following week.

There was the Rutgers escape, then an impressive 31-17 win over Wisconsin. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook didn’t play in the game because of a concussion.

“I think we’ve earned the respect of other programs,” said Northwestern receiver Flynn Nagel, who ranks second in the Big Ten in receptions per game. “I think we’ve consistently earned respect from other programs. This is just another point where we can earn that respect. Winning the West would mean a lot to the program. But also not paying attention to it too much and going week by week and focusing on Iowa right now, other than the Big Ten West.”

Clayton Thorson has started 48 straight games at quarterback for Northwestern but has had a rather uneven season with 11 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He was limited the first part of the season after undergoing knee surgery last winter.

One thing Northwestern has done very well is not commit penalties. It leads the nation in fewest flags.

Other than that, this team has simply found a way to win the important games. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Northwestern could clinch the West with a win Saturday and losses by Wisconsin at Penn State and Purdue at Minnesota. The Wildcats finish the regular season at Minnesota and at home against Illlinois.

“This is a goal that we set at the beginning of the year,” said defensive lineman Joe Gaziano. “We always want to win the West. To be in that position, it feels good. We’ve taken care of the games we needed to take care of to be in this position. We haven’t won every game, and that’s something we can learn (from). But the thing for us moving forward is we want our goals to align with our realities. We have to focus in on each game, each week.”

“Our guys have been pretty resilient,” Fitzgerald said. “They have battled through adversity, and there is no way in the world I could have predicted (they’d be in this position).”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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