EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) The way star linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. sees it, the season opener might as well count as a conference game for Northwestern.
The Wildcats come into Saturday's game against MAC favorite Western Michigan knowing they face a stiff challenge as they try to start on a winning note and build on a rebuild year.
''We have to come in with the mindset that we're facing a Big Ten opponent,'' Walker said. ''They're going to come out ready to play and we're going to have to come out ready to play. They have weapons all over the field.''
The Wildcats have a renewed energy coming off a 10-3 season that squashed concerns about a regression after back-to-back 5-7 showings.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald enters his 11th year with a 70-56 record and more victories than any other coach for a program that started in 1882. He is the only one to win 10 games twice. But the margin between double digits in wins and a .500 or losing record last season was a thin one.
Northwestern was 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less, got manhandled by a combined 78-10 in consecutive games against Michigan and Iowa, and was pounded 45-6 by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. Yet a strong defense led the turnaround, starting with a 16-6 victory over No. 21 Stanford. The Wildcats kept the Cardinal out of the end zone in a performance that set the course toward a bounce-back season.
They begin this year with their sights set another big run like the one that led to bowl games in five straight years. It starts with the opener, and here are some things for look for against Western Michigan:
Four starters are gone from a defense that fueled the turnaround last season. But Walker is back - and that is huge. After all, he led Wildcats in tackles (122) by more than 30, finished fourth in the nation with 20 1/2 tackles for loss and earned third-team, All-America honors as a sophomore last season. Given that, it's not hard to see why he is at the center of a major promotional blitz the likes of which Northwestern had not produced since it pushed former quarterback Dan Persa as a Heisman candidate five years ago.
ABOUT WESTERN MICHIGAN
The Broncos were favored to win the MAC in a preseason media poll and put Northern Illinois' six-year run of championship game appearances to the test. Quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis are back from an 8-5 team that lost just twice in league play a year ago, to NIU and Bowling Green. And those teams played for the conference title. Western Michigan went on to beat Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas Bowl for its first bowl victory.
''I think they've done a terrific job,'' Fitzgerald said. ''They've taken young guys that probably were overlooked by our conference and have done a great job.''
ON THE RUN
No returning Big Ten running back rushed for more yards last season than Justin Jackson. His per-carry average, however, was rather underwhelming. Despite finishing second to Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott last season with 1,418 yards, he averaged 4.5 per attempt. That's something Jackson hopes to change and he will start against a Western Michigan team ranked eighth in the MAC in run defense last year, allowing 5.3 yards per carry.
Northwestern did not ask much of quarterback Clayton Thorson as a freshman. But his development could go a long way toward determining if the Wildcats will rise after finishing last in the conference in scoring and yards per game. Thorson threw for 1,522 yards and seven touchdowns while running for 397 yards and five TDs last season.
Northwestern will have its hands full with Corey Davis. He ended last season as the leading active FBS receiver with 3,785 yards and needs 402 to match the all-time MAC record.