EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) No. 17 Northwestern is on the rise. To superback Dan Vitale, that means one thing: ''Don't believe anything anybody says about you,'' he said.
The Wildcats (3-0) are rolling into Saturday's game against Ball State (2-1) and they would like to keep it that way with Big Ten play starting next week.
If they knock off the Cardinals, they will be 4-0 for the second time in three years. And while that certainly sounds good, things sure fell apart quickly the last time they won their first four.
The Wildcats did just that in 2013, when they were coming off a 10-win season and looked as if they were ready to challenge in the Big Ten. They were 4-0 and leading then-No. 4 Ohio State by 10 in the third quarter at home before the Buckeyes rallied. Just like that, the season collapsed.
Northwestern dropped seven straight before winning the final game and finished 5-7 last season for the second straight year.
''I think we're a much more mature football team than we have been the last couple of years,'' said Vitale, a senior.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald also mentioned a lack of focus and maturity the past few years. The chemistry was not right, either.
''The trust, the camaraderie, the chemistry, the brotherhood right now in the locker room is as strong as we've had it, and the credit goes to the guys,'' Fitzgerald said. ''They've really bought into each other. They understand who we are and what we value.''
Some things to look for when Northwestern and Ball State meet for the first time.
DOMINATING D: One big key for Northwestern? The Wildcats are dominating on defense.
They hold a 76-16 combined scoring edge so far and they're not allowing many extended drives. Northwestern did not give up a touchdown until Duke scored one last week, and when it comes to third-down conversions, the Wildcats are particularly stingy. Opponents are 6 of 43.
Northwestern leads the nation in scoring defense at 5.3 points per game and ranks sixth in both total defense (235 yards per game) and yards passing allowed (124.3 per game).
''We're holding ourselves more accountable and we're not being complacent,'' linebacker Drew Smith said. ''And I think a lot of it comes from being tired of not winning when we know we had the chance to and not performing well when we had the talent to. I think a lot of guys are fed up with not fulfilling their potential.''
FRESH START: Quarterback Riley Neal is expected to make his first start for Ball State after seeing considerable time the past two games. He tied the fourth-best completion percentage in school history in last week's 28-17 win over Eastern Michigan, going 24 of 28 for 194 yards and touchdown. He also ran for 86, including a 41-yard TD.
GROUND CONTROL: After rushing for nearly 1,200 yards as a freshman, Justin Jackson is off to a good start as a sophomore. He has 332 yards this season after running for 120 on a career-high 35 carries last week. That gave him eight 100-yard games.
RUNNING AWAY: While Jackson is looking good for Northwestern so far, Ball State has also been having success on the ground. The Cardinals have run for at least 200 yards in all three games - 278 last week. Northwestern is allowing 3.6 yards per carry but gave up 177 against Duke.
STAYING THE COURSE: Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson had a rough time last week, completing just 9 of 23 passes for 70 yards and throwing his first two interceptions. But Fitzgerald insisted he never thought of replacing the freshman.