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Northwestern Might Be the Best Team in the Big Ten

There’s a difference between being a talented football team and being a good football team. A big difference, actually.

And as we close the book on college football’s Week 5, we are seeing this truism played out most clearly in the Big Ten, where a handful of teams with all-world talent are struggling mightily—while a couple of others that will never find themselves ranked among the Top 20 of those ridiculous recruiting rankings are thriving.

You can put Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State in the former group, while in the latter, the obvious standouts are the Indiana Hoosiers (who came so very close to pulling the upset over the Buckeyes yesterday), the Iowa Hawkeyes (who, after a win yesterday in Madison, now have the look of a team of destiny) and, perhaps most notably, the Northwestern Wildcats.

Yes, Northwestern. If there’s a better story in this 2015 football season than the resurgence of Pat Fitzgerald and his feisty Wildcats, well, I haven’t seen it.

The Wildcats pushed their record to a perfect 5-0 yesterday with yet another impressive win, this time taking down a decent Minnesota team by the score of 27-0. As has been the case all year for this team, it was the defense leading the charge—and, really, this unit is only getting better with each passing week. Which is a real problem for the rest of the Big Ten.

Against an admittedly weak Gopher offense, Fitzgerald’s troops were as relentless and as suffocating as they’ve been all year. They allowed Minnesota just 173 total yards (99 passing, 74 rushing) and 11 first downs on the day, and held the Gophers to 11 first downs. They also limited the Gophers to 4 of 16 on third down, 0 of 4 on fourth down and forced two turnovers. Challenged by Fitzgerald to have more fun out on the field this week, this defense did precisely that—and given that the unit only seems to be feeding on its success, one can only wonder how much stronger it can get.

“Our confidence has grown each game,” senior defensive lineman Dean Lowry told the Daily Northwestern. “We feel very confident we can play against anybody and any offensive scheme going forward.”

Fitzgerald, for his part, says that while he knew this bunch could be good, their play so far this season has surprised even him.

“Did I think that we’d be at this point from a points-allowed total?” he said during his post-game press conference Saturday, according to NU Sports. “There’s no way I could’ve speculated that. So obviously the credit first and foremost goes to our guys. I think they’re playing together. They’re playing for each other. And from that standpoint, they’ve got a great synergy about them and they’re playing with a lot of passion.”

Lots of passion, yes. But lots of discipline, too. And lots of good-old fashioned belief—belief in their team, their coach, their program and their season.

Which, of course, goes right back to the idea of “talented” vs. “good.” This unit has some good, solid college players—and maybe one or two guys who could make it in the NFL. But does it have the same kind of talent that Urban Meyer has down in Columbus, or what Mark Dantonio has over in East Lansing? Nope. Not even close.

What this Northwestern defense does have, however, is a collective commitment to the system and a complete understanding among every single player in the unit about what they are supposed to do on every single play.

This isn’t the fastest defense in the Big Ten. It isn’t the strongest. And no, it isn’t the most talented.

But it is without question the best defense in the Big Ten.

And based on its play alone, it very well could prove Northwestern to be the best team in the Big Ten come January, too.

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