Wildcats, Gophers are on the upswing

The Big Ten as a whole may be off to a disappointing start in 2012. But don't try selling that storyline at Northwestern or Minnesota, where disappointment is in short supply these days.

The Wildcats and Gophers are two of the only three undefeated Big Ten teams left (Ohio State is the other). That they are a combined 6-0 is notable since they won just nine games between them last year. Yet these two teams bear little resemblance to last season's clubs.

The 2011 Northwestern narrative was a simple one: great offense, crummy defense, inability to finish games. A 42-41 opening win over Syracuse reinforced some of the notions about the defense. In the two games, since, however, the Wildcats have held their opponents (Vanderbilt and Boston College) to just 13 points each, while Syracuse has shown itself to have one of the nation's top passing attacks.

One of the biggest differences for Northwestern this year is its play up front. The defense is allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry, while the offense is averaging over 200 rushing yards per game.

"I think we're a tougher team from top to bottom," senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields said. "The proof is in the pudding, in the running game. We've committed to a mentality, a want-to."

The Wildcats' defense still has holes but is making more things happen. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt rank in the top five of the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The team didn't have a single player in the top 20 of that stat last season.

"In the offseason, we tried to make it a point to come together, so when we're on the field communication wasn't going to be a problem," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said. "I think this team is super close, and we really enjoy being around each other. We have fun together, and we have trust in each other so we can go play fast."

Jerry Kill never promised a fast turnaround at Minnesota but rather a gradual building of the program when he took over before last year. So Kill is trying not to overplay the fact that his team has already matched its 2011 win total. The schedule -- UNLV, New Hampshire and Western Michigan -- isn't exactly the NFC East.

Still, this looks like a much different team than the one that lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State at home early last season. After years of struggling to generate a pass rush, the Gophers have playmakers on the defensive line in Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite. The team has eight sacks already after getting only 19 a year ago.

While the overall physicality is not yet to Kill's liking, Minnesota is averaging 210 rushing yards per game, 50 yards more than last year's team.

"I think it's more familiarity with the offense," tight end John Rabe said. "We're a lot more comfortable with the whole offensive scheme and knowing where we all fit in. We've had a pretty good start in the running game, and I don't think we're even close to where we can be."

The Gophers started to build confidence toward the end of last season, when they beat Iowa, hung tough at Michigan State and dominated Illinois. That has shown early this year, as they survived an overtime win at UNLV and outlasted Western Michigan despite losing starting quarterback MarQueis Gray to injury.

"Last year, we might have been like, 'OK, here it goes again,'" Rabe said. "But this year, we have a ton of confidence that we can pull these games out. Our whole attitude is that we are supposed to win and we are going to win these games, not that we're trying not to lose."

Rabe said there's a buzz building on campus about this team, with students and teachers talking football more than in the past. That has yet to spread nationally, as Minnesota's schedule and lack of recent success hasn't created much attention for the 3-0 start, though a win this week over Syracuse could help.

Northwestern is similarly unbeaten and unloved. The Wildcats aren't in the Top 25 this week despite beating three BCS AQ teams to start the year, and this week's game against South Dakota is unlikely to move the needle.

But that's OK with Pat Fitzgerald, who has been highly critical of his team even in triumph. Fields said he and the other veterans remember the 2010 season when Northwestern started out 5-0, only to fall apart and finish 7-6. They want to make sure this team stays focused on what's in front of them, and not get caught looking too much at the big picture.

So let the Gophers and Wildcats fly under the radar for now. They're not disappointed at all.

"People can't really deny you when you keep winning," Fields said.