Big Ten West notebook: Has Northwestern regained its mojo?

Are Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats the team we saw beat Stanford or get shutout back to back weeks?

Jerry Lai/Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern raced to a 5-0 start and seemed like one of the surprise teams of college football in 2015. Then everything came crashing down.

Back-to-back shutout losses at the hands of Michigan and Iowa brought the entire season into question. Have the Wildcats turned a corner after taking down Nebraska on the road 30-28 to get bowl eligible? 

There were some good signs in the victory, namely redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, who was named Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week after accounting for 303 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win. 

When asked after the game about the idea of the team getting their swagger back, head coach Pat Fitzgerald had this to say:

"I don’t know if we lost our mojo. I hate to disappoint bloggers, but our guys don’t listen to them," the coach said. "It’s just the way the world is today, you win five games and everyone tells you how great you are and really you watch the tape, and I said it, we are not that good. I didn’t want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy obviously, but for two weeks we played two really good football teams.

"That’s going to happen when you get into conference play and you just have to keep swinging and battling. It’s the world you live in, and you’ve got to shut the noise off and I think the kids did a good job with that and they stayed the course."

Dean Lowry might be the best defensive player in the country no one has heard of. He set a school record with six tackles for loss on Saturday. The Wildcats have a bye then face off against Penn State at home, which will go a long way to letting us know if they are back on the right track.

Injuries mounting as Badgers try to get on track

Almost everyone who predicts college football during the preseason had Wisconsin pegged to come out of the West. Thanks to a loss to Iowa, the Badgers are stuck behind the Hawkeyes in the standings.

They need some help from the Hawkeyes’ soft schedule, but before they can worry about that, they could use some good fortune in their locker room. On Monday, head coach Paul Chryst announced Wisconsin will be without starting center Dan Voltz for the remainder of the season. Also, the team will not have starting wide receiver Rob Wheelwright indefinitely due to injury. 

Star running back Corey Clement is getting closer to returning and is able to take hits now in practice but there is lots of discussion in Madison if it would be the right move to bring him back during a season you are not contending for the Big Ten Championship. 

Chryst spoke about the injury bug during his press conference on Monday:

"And it’s good and it is fun getting guys ready. That’s called coaching, and I feel really lucky to coach, and then you make sure they are as prepared as they can."

The Badgers were buried by many after the Iowa loss, but they still pose a real threat if they can get some help to end the season.

Nebraska’s season now viewed as lost

When head coach Mike Riley came to Lincoln, there was a lot of cautious excitement. Many Huskers fans did not know who he was but heard so many good things about him that surely he deserved a fair chance.

Confidence is waning now and the season is viewed as lost now that the Cornhuskers have fallen to 3-5. To be guaranteed a bowl game, Riley’s team will need to go 3-1 over the home stretch, which includes dates with Michigan State and Iowa who are both undefeated.

That seems like a tall task for a team that has lost five games by a combined 13 points in 2015 largely because of their inability to finish.

Riley was asked about that issue on Monday and offered this:

“I think that when you talk about the fourth quarter and finishing, I think you have to throw all of us into the barrel. They all have their own story so it’s hard to generalize necessarily about what that might be," the former Oregon State coach said. "The definite part is that there are isolated cases where one more first down offensively and we don’t get into a Hail Mary. You can go all the way back to that. Just taking better care of the football and the time management in Illinois. There is isolated things as we go that you could pinpoint game to game and that’s what happens in close games that are down to the wire. Those things are glaring, so we all take part in that failure.”

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