A pair of victories over major-conference opponents aren't cause for celebration in the eyes of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose lofty expectations for his squad still have him focused on improvement.
The 17th-ranked Wildcats are buying into his message.
Northwestern seeks its 15th straight non-conference home victory as it faces winless Western Michigan on Saturday night.
"There's nobody walking around here feeling we've arrived, I can promise you that," Fitzgerald said. "We are far from the team we're capable of being in all three phases."
That tone is familiar coming from Fitzgerald, who expects Northwestern (2-0) to contend for its first Big Ten title since being part of a three-way tie in 2000. The Wildcats beat California on the road 44-30 on Aug. 31 despite starting quarterback Kain Colter suffering a concussion on the second play, then defeated Syracuse 48-27 last week without injured running back Venric Mark.
"This is a very hungry, very focused ball club that has a determined approach to the way we're working right now," Fitzgerald said. "I'm looking forward to watching the way they work this week."
The Wildcats have done pretty well so far. They racked up 581 yards of total offense against Syracuse without committing a turnover, and the defense had four interceptions.
Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo had a pick in the final minute of the first half for Northwestern, which has seven on the season to tie with Tennessee for the most in the country.
"Everyone's just focused on getting better and getting ready to play the next game," Ariguzo said. "We've got to keep our mindset that we can get better each week. We don't want to take any week for granted."
Northwestern doesn't want to get caught looking ahead to its showdown with No. 4 Ohio State on Oct. 5 with games against Western Michigan (0-2) and Maine, an FCS opponent, the next two weeks.
"You've always got to expect you're going to get the opponent's A game. So the focus is always on us," Fitzgerald said. "It's the way we prepare."
Colter seemed more than ready for last week's contest, finishing 15 for 18 for 116 yards and a touchdown while running for 87 and a score. He split time with pocket passer Trevor Siemian, who went 15 for 19 for 259 yards with three touchdowns and ranks 12th in the country at 16.2 yards per completion.
"He was really hungry to play," Fitzgerald said of Colter.
Fitzgerald used a similar description when discussing Marks, whose lower-body injury could keep him off the field again Saturday and possibly until the Ohio State contest. Backup Treyvon Green ran for 129 yards and two TDs on 16 carries after Marks went down against Cal, then finished with 66 yards and a touchdown last week.
Tony Jones, who caught nine passes for 185 yards and a score against Syracuse, is tied atop the Big Ten with 14 receptions for a Wildcats offense averaging 544.5 yards.
"We thought he'd be an impact player in what we do," Fitzgerald said. "He's really lived up to that everyday."
Things haven't gone as well for Western Michigan. After posting only 11 rushing yards in a 26-13 loss to Michigan State on Aug. 30, it suffered a 27-23 home loss last week to FCS opponent Nicholls State.
Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen went 24 for 43 for 254 yards, but his two interceptions gave him four with zero touchdowns this season.
"We knew this was going to be a tough year," 32-year-old first-year coach P.J. Fleck said. "You've heard me say that this is going to be a building year. We have to dig a little deeper in to the foundation now."
Northwestern hasn't lost a non-conference game at home since falling 20-14 to Duke on Sept. 15, 2007.
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