EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern has been a bit of an enigma through the first six games.
The Wildcats have a good record (5-1), but they haven't always looked like a good team. Their four wins against FBS foes have come against teams with a combined record of 7-20, and only one of those victories came by more than five points. They look impressive for parts of games but struggle to pull away from weaker foes, in large part because of penalties (46 for 395 yards) and untimely turnovers (9).
A choppy first half has sparked a debate: does Northwestern play to the level of its competition, or are the Wildcats simply mediocre themselves?
The answer should come in the second half of the season, as Northwestern takes on a role where it's typically most comfortable.
The Wildcats are the underdogs again. And if recent history holds, that's a good thing.
For the first time this season, Northwestern enters a game without the favorite's tag Saturday when it hosts No. 7 Michigan State at Ryan Field.
"Most of the time, we are the underdogs," junior cornerback Jordan Mabin said. "That's what it's been for a long time here, but how we've been playing the past couple of years, we're changing the culture and the atmosphere around here."
Northwestern is 22-10 since the start of the 2008 season and 30-28 in Big Ten play since 2003. The Wildcats weren't favored in many of those Big Ten victories and posted at least one conference upset per year.
Here are a few of note:
2003: Unranked, beat No. 20 Wisconsin
2004: Unranked, beat No. 7 Ohio state and No. 17 Purdue
2005: Unranked, beat No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 22 Michigan State
2006: Beat a 6-3 Iowa team in Iowa City to improve to 3-7
2007: Beat a 4-1 Michigan State team in East Lansing to improve to 3-3
2008: Unranked, beat No. 20 Minnesota in Minneapolis
2009: Unranked, beat No. 8 Iowa in Iowa City and No. 17 Wisconsin in Evanston
Northwestern's signature upset wins have been offset by disheartening losses like Duke in 2007, Indiana in 2008, Syracuse in 2009 and Purdue two weeks ago. The Wildcats don't flourish as favorites and struggle mightily when the spotlight shines on them.
While the spotlight will be in Evanston on Saturday, it'll be directed toward the Michigan State sideline, as the undefeated Spartans try to continue their best start since 1966. Northwestern would have been a bigger story had it handled Purdue, improved to 6-0 and undoubtedly entered the national rankings.
After the loss to Purdue, the Wildcats are back under the radar. They're the unranked underdogs again, where in a strange way, they seem to be at their best.
"We prepare the same way, whether it's a highly ranked team or a team that's not ranked," quarterback Dan Persa said. "I think the past couple of years, it's just been the luck of the draw that we've played our best game against teams that happen to be ranked high."
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't talk to the team about the underdog role, preferring to direct the focus inward for each game. But Fitzgerald and his players are well aware that anything can happen on Saturday.
"After watching football [last] weekend, the conference is as competitive as its ever been," Fitzgerald said. "When you have that happen, each contest is a 60-minute street fight. Whoever plays best on that day has a chance to win."