Northwestern is 3-0, Fitzgerald is looking to add polish
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'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 a sixth-ranked 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 yards a second straight season. But the story of this team is a defense that has allowed a nation-low total of 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.''
It seems the nation is just starting to notice Michigan State senior receiver Aaron Burbridge, who had his third straight 100-yard game and caught three touchdown passes against Air Force. Coach Mark Dantonio knew it was a matter of time.
''He's always been a very, very good player,'' Dantonio said. ''Sometimes it takes opportunity. People expected him to be that his sophomore year, be that guy. But other guys have good years. Three are in the NFL now. So we've had playmakers at that position, and we've gone with six guys. He's getting more opportunities now.''
Other Big Ten notes:
- Redshirt freshman David Blough is replacing junior Austin Appleby as Purdue's starting quarterback. Appleby threw six interceptions and lost a fumble the first three games. ''The No. 1 goal for our football team is to not turn the ball over,'' coach Darrell Hazell said. ''We've done that too many times in the first three weeks so we felt we needed to make a change right there.''
- Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis said this week he and his mates could be the best secondary in the country. Coach Jim Harbaugh didn't tamp down Lewis' enthusiasm. ''It's an ascending group for our team,'' he said.
- Rutgers hosts a Kansas team that's lost 30 straight road games, and interim head coach Norries Wilson said his linemen must play better than they did last week at Penn State. ''We've been emphasizing the line of scrimmage,'' he said, ''to make sure they don't tee off on us.''