Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, October 3, 2015

EVANSTON, ILL. — Where were you the night of Oct. 6, 2013?

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Northwestern knows exactly where it was back then. Why shouldn?t it? The program hasn?t been the same since that infamous night-the night the music died for the Northwestern program as it slipped from relevancy.

It was a rainy evening and the national spotlight was staring at Ryan Field, where a loud and raucous crowd had gathered to watch a prime-time matchup between No. 4 Ohio State and No. 16 NU. This was hailed by many as the biggest game in years in Evanston, as the Wildcats were 4-0 and dreaming big coming off a 10-win season that was capped by the program?s first bowl win since the 1948 season.

And all looked good on this potential-filled night of glory. Northwestern was leading, 30-27, with nine minutes left in the game, but Ohio State rallied with a Carlos Hyde seven-yard TD run with 5:22 left to take a 33-30 edge it wouldn?t relinquish en route to a 40-30 win on this rain-soaked night to push its winning streak to 18-and deflate Northwestern?s big dreams.

Ohio State marched on to a 12-2 season (8-0 Big Ten) capped by an Orange Bowl bid. Northwestern stumbled to seven losses in a row and a 1-7 finish to cap a 5-7 season-followed by another 5-7 clunker in 2014-en route to general irrelevancy for the next two years ? until now.

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Today?s 27-0 demolition of Minnesota pushed Northwestern to 5-0. And it has the program thinking big.

"They don't make mistakes, they do their job," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "They did their job today. They played harder than we did."

The aggregate 10-14 mark of the last two years seems washed away. And the distraction of the Kain Colter-led union movement has been pushed further into the background. This is a different NU program, a unified program. This is a NU program that just may win the Big Ten West. Pat Fitzgerald-now unbelievably in his 10th season at his alma mater–has quelled critics with an impressive start that has vaulted NU into national relevancy-not to mention a No. 16 ranking in the AP poll entering today.

"From an energy standpoint, I think the guys are having a lot of fun," Fitzgerald said. "They're in a good place mentally."

Several big games loom, including a huge trip to 4-1 Michigan next week. That is followed by a visit from fellow 5-0 team Iowa on Oct. 17. Win both of those, and the top of Fitz?s head just may blow off.

This Northwestern club has the look of a classic Big Ten team. The offense is centered around a physical ground game led by sophomore sensation back Justin Jackson. This is a tribute to an offensive line that has disappointed in recent years. Was it strong enough? Was it mean enough? Was it good enough? The team?s rushing average sank from 225.5 ypg in 2012 to 172.4 in 2013 to 136.6 ypg last season. Now, NU is the Big Ten?s standard bearer when it comes to rushing the ball.

NU entered the day No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing (265.0 ypg), and it ripped off 184 yards vs. Minnesota. Jackson showed why he is No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing, running 20 times for 120 yards–the 10th time in the last 12 games he has eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Jackson entered the game carrying a league-high 118 times for 516 yards (129.0 ypg).

Minnesota is another story? The offense arrived in Evanston a predictable and plodding mess with all the pizzazz of a rice cake. Today may have been a low-point in a season already filled with offensive low-lights.

There was the overtime struggle at Colorado State that required heroics to just get to the extra session ? there was a 10-7 taffy pull vs. Kent State ? there was a great escape vs. Ohio that required more last-second heroics. But, today?s ?effort? at Northwestern has set a new benchmark for bad offensive football that saw Minnesota total 173 yards.

The Gophers were just living up to their rep for offensive ineptitude. Minnesota arrived in town having been held to 28 points or fewer in each of their last eight games. The Gophers are averaging 19.3 points this season, which is the fewest among power conference teams. After today, that average will dip to 15.4-along with the prospects for a Minnesota squad that had some great expectations for 2015 coming off consecutive 8-5 seasons.

Credit the Northwestern defense for much of the misery Minnesota endured today. The Wildcats are a salty bunch with more speed and athletic ability than you realize, having yielded just three touchdowns in five games (Big Ten-low 7.0 ppg). Linebacker Anthony Walker, corner Matthew Harris and safety Godwin Igwebuike are future pros. And there is plenty of talent beyond that in end Dean Lowry, corner Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry, among others.

It?s talent like that-along with a new attitude-that has NU thinking big and burying that bad memory vs. Ohio State in the rain from two years ago.

"We made a statement to the whole Big Ten, but there's seven games left and right now, this is just one step," Lowry said.

But it was a very big step-one out of the past and into a bright future.


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