Northwestern can make bigger mess of Big Ten West by winning at Wrigley Field

Northwestern's news cycle was supposed to end in August.

After the sudden and surprising departure of head coach Pat Fitzgerald at the end of a controversial hazing investigation, it seemed reasonable to expect the Wildcats' downward slide to continue. Remember, NU finished 1-11 last season.

The players had other ideas. For the second time this season, Northwestern won as double-digit underdogs, beating Maryland 33-27 at Ryan Field.

Defensive coordinator David Braun was promoted to interim head coach mostly because he was new to the school and had no connections to anything that happened in the past. It's starting to look like he's the right person for the job.

"I can't express how proud I am of this team right now," Braun said after the game. "Those oddsmakers aren't sitting in our building, they're not in our position rooms. They don't know the heart that exists in that room. We'll let guys make their odds and we'll just go back to work."

The Wildcats (4-4, 2-3) could move into Big Ten West title contention with a victory Saturday over Iowa. This game will be played at Wrigley Field, continuing a recent tradition.

"It's another pinch-yourself moment," Braun said. "First baseball game I ever went to was with my dad at Wrigley Field. Grabbed a hot dog on the way. I remember walking up to the stadium, parking in a back alley."

The soft-spoken Braun grew up in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, played defensive line at Winona State, and arrived in Evanston after spending the previous four years at North Dakota State.

"An opportunity to be part of a football game at Wrigley Field, what a unique special experience," he said. "Really excited for our fan base to experience this, for our players to experience this. It's going to be a special day."

The Iowa-Northwestern matchup made headlines for its projected total of 29.5 points, the lowest on record. But the Wildcats' offense looked pretty good last week.

With QB Ben Bryant (Lyons) injured, backup Brendan Sullivan got the start, and is expected to get the assignment again this weekend. Heading into the Maryland game, Sullivan had a 1-5 record as a starter, with the lone win coming against Howard on Oct. 7.

But Sullivan, a Michigan native, threw for 265 yards, ran for 56 and got the best of Terps veteran QB Taulia Tagovailoa. Four different Wildcats had at least 45 receiving yards.

On the defensive side, senior LB Xander Mueller (Wheaton North) is No. 2 in tackles, behind fellow LB Bryce Gallagher.

Football in the Big Ten West isn't always an artistic success, but fans are accustomed to expecting the unexpected. With Iowa this week and a trip to Wisconsin on Nov. 11, Northwestern could conceivably take command of the final division race.

"I still think our best football is still in front of us," Braun said.

Change of Valleys:

Southern Illinois rolled over Western Illinois 63-0 in Macomb last Saturday in what could turn out to be the last meeting of the in-state rivals for a while.

WIU is dropping out of the Missouri Valley football conference and will play in the Ohio Valley in 2024. Western will join Eastern Illinois, Southeast Missouri, Lindenwood, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin as football-playing members.

The OVC has been shrinking in recent years, and combined with the Big South this season. So WIU is moving to a league that's been on wobbly footing. But it also seems clear the Leathernecks are a long way from being able to compete in the MVFC, which has been the strongest in FCS.

SIU (6-2) is ranked No. 10 in this week's national poll, giving the Salukis another chance to earn an elusive top-eight seed in the FCS playoffs, which means a bye in the first round, followed by a home game.

The next two weeks will be key, with SIU facing South Dakota at home, then North Dakota State on the road. Illinois State (4-4) has work to do after losing to South Dakota 24-21 last weekend.

Local player of the week:

Carthage WR Jordan Wiles (Rolling Meadows) had 11 receptions, including a 27-yard TD catch with 1:28 left to give his team a 30-27 victory over Carroll.

Results based top 5:

1. Ohio State, 2. Washington, 3. Florida State, 4. Alabama, 5. Oregon.

Interesting game of the week:

If two-time defending champ Georgia is vulnerable, the next three weeks should show it. The Bulldogs host No. 12 Missouri on Saturday, followed by No. 10 Ole Miss and No. 17 Tennessee on the road.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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