Even in victory NU focused on improving

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern has found a way in three consecutive weeks to do just enough to pull out a win.

Whether it was their last-second win over Syracuse in the opening week, a decisive fourth-quarter performance against Vanderbilt last week or Saturday’s 22-13 win over Boston College where their offense, defense and special teams came through in the clutch, the Wildcats’ victories have included some good, some average and some bad.

Being 3-0, Northwestern can’t complain. The Wildcats’ record could easily be flipped. Each game has come down to just a few plays, and Northwestern has succeeded when it has mattered most.

But while the Wildcats have set themselves up to start the season 4-0 with next week’s opponent being South Dakota from the FCS, the Wildcats understand that if they’re going to make some real noise in the Big Ten and have a chance at knocking off such upcoming opponents as Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State, they have to be better.

“I think we got a hungry team,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They have a look in their eye they’re embracing improvement. We’re in no way, shape or form where we want to be quite yet. Mission accomplished: we’ve gone 1-0 three times, and hopefully we continue to embrace getting better.”

Northwestern’s offense encapsulated what delighted and frustrated Fitzgerald in Saturday’s win.

On the one hand, Northwestern compiled 560 yards on 100 plays, threw for 267 yards, ran for 293 yards, reached the red zone five times, had a time of possession of 35:56 and was 12 of 19 on third down.

But on the other, the Wildcats scored just one touchdown and had to settle for five field goals. The Wildcats moved the ball with ease everywhere on the field except when they got inside Boston College’s 20-yard line.

“It was unbelievable ball movement, keeping possession of the ball, putting together great drives, picking up first downs,” Fitzgerald said. “I could keep going on and on and on … time of possession.

“But the end of the day, we got to turn three (points) into seven as we move forward, and we got to finish drives. A lot of the issues we had with drives were self-inflicted, either drops, penalties, not hitting guys who were open.”

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took a brunt of the blame for the offense’s red-zone failures. He even went as far as describing a passing attempt in which he missed a wide-open Christian Jones in the end zone as a “girl throw.”

“We got to go out and execute,” said Colter, who was 16 of 20 for 144 yards. “At the end of the day, we’re 3-0, and we haven’t even nearly played our best football. That’s the encouraging thing. We can go out there play a lot better. I can play a lot better. That’s something to look forward to.”

What has increasingly improved since Week 1 has been Northwestern’s defensive play.

Against Syracuse, the Wildcats’ defense wore down and allowed 28 points in the second half. Syracuse picked up 496 total yards, scored 41 points and was 12 of 20 on third down on the day. They’re the type of numbers that had to put a scare in Northwestern coming off a difficult defensive season in 2011.

But Northwestern’s defense has bounced back. The Wildcats held Vanderbilt to 13 points, 318 total yards and 4 of 15 on third down last week. On Saturday, the Wildcats limited Boston College to 13 points, 316 yards, including 25 rushing yards, and 2 of 11 on third down.

Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo was asked afterward if the fans could get used to the defense being the reason for the Wildcats winning.

“It’s a team game, so whichever one (offense or defense) is doing better we’re going to pick each other up,” Ariguzo said. “They can just get used to us winning.”

That they have through three games.