September 22, 2015

(AP) - Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is happy to be 3-0, though he sees no cause for celebration yet.

The Wildcats are ranked No. 17 entering Saturday night's home game against Ball State. Their 16-6 win over then-No. 21 Stanford to open the season looks even better after the Cardinal beat then-No. 6 Southern California last week, and the Wildcats are coming off a 19-10 road victory over a Duke team known for its offense.

Fitzgerald can't be blamed for keeping his emotions in check. It was just two years ago the Wildcats started 4-0 and led Ohio State by 10 points in the second half of their Big Ten opener before the season went off the rails. The Wildcats lost seven straight and ended up 5-7.

Fitzgerald said Tuesday he hasn't used the 2013 freefall as a cautionary tale.

''The guys who lived through it in the locker room understand why that happened,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We lost our focus and had things happen to us - the Hail Mary (at Nebraska). The guys who are older understand why that happened. Right now at this point, with the maturity and leadership to this point, I haven't had to go back there.''

First-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorson has been solid, and Justin Jackson looks as if he'll go over 1,000 rushing yards for a second straight season. But the story of this team is a defense that has allowed a nation-low 16 points.

''I think we're a team that's working hard to improve,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We haven't played three phases of clean football in our first three games. We've been fortunate enough to find a way to win. I think we're far from the team we're capable of.''

Warren Long touched the ball three times last weekend for Northwestern - and wound up making two critical plays.

Long ran 55 yards for a touchdown, then recovered a fumbled punt return to help seal the victory. Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for the TD that put the Wildcats ahead to stay.

Jackson finished with 120 yards rushing for the Wildcats, who ran for 201 against a Duke defense that held its first two opponents to a combined 79 yards on the ground.

''All the stuff about speed, I think we're a pretty fast football team,'' Fitzgerald said. ''I don't know what the thing is about people thinking the Big Ten can't run. I think we can run.''

Ball State (2-1) can also run. The Cardinals are tied for 11th in the FBS with 747 rushing yards and have scored 10 TDs on the ground.

They ran for 278 yards in a 28-17 win at Eastern Michigan last Saturday, with Darian Green going for a career-best 164 on 25 carries. Green is 21st in the FBS with 334 rushing yards.

"It wasn't an easy win ... but to come on the road and get a win here is a nice start," coach Pete Lembo said. "We're still learning a lot about our football team and we still have a lot to fix, but we're certainly going to take it and be happy with the result."

Green and freshman running back James Gilbert have combined for 10 of the team's 12 touchdowns, and they'll be going against a Northwestern defense that allowed 155 rushing yards in the first two games before Duke ran for 177.

"They're going to be challenged this week," Fitzgerald said. "Ball State does a great job with their zone scheme, I'm really impressed with their offensive line. ... Their backs are patient."

This will be the first meeting between these programs.

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