Northwestern is an odd football program.
The Wildcats have been very solid in Big Ten play since 2003, beating every team in the league at least once and going .500 or better five times in the past seven years. They've driven Iowa nuts and pulled off several upsets against ranked teams.
But nonconference play has been a very different story. The Wildcats almost always play down to their competition, dropping games to teams like Duke (2007), Hawaii (2004) and Syracuse (2009). Some of those early losses have kept NU out of the postseason.
That's why Pat Fitzgerald and crew are breathing a big sigh of relief right now.
Vanderbilt nearly became the latest bottom feeder to beat Northwestern in non-league play. Northwestern only secured a 23-21 victory after a controversial helmet-to-helmet penalty against Vandy secured a first down and allowed the offense to run out the clock. The game was similar to Northwestern's previous nonconference disasters, featuring special-teams blunders, momentum shifts and several utterly bizarre moments. Vanderbilt really hurt itself with penalties (9 for 91 yards).
But a win's a win, and Northwestern will take them in non-league play. New starting quarterback Dan Persa had a solid performance, passing for 222 yards and three touchdowns, completing 19 of 21 passes in Mike Kafka-esque fashion. Defensive tackle Jack DiNardo also stepped up for the Wildcats.
Once again, the run game really struggled, which is a concern given the experience along the offensive line. Persa rushed for 82 yards, but Northwestern's running backs, particularly Arby Fields, really struggled. This team has to do better with a veteran offensive line.
Special teams were an adventure for both teams, as Northwestern had a field goal attempt blocked, and muffed an extra point attempt that could have made it a two-score game with 4:39 left.
A lot to correct for Fitzgerald's crew going forward.