The College Football Tour tailgate was surrounded by hues of Husky red and Wildcat purple…and swarms of bees. If NU was playing Georgia Tech, we could chalk it up to irony. Instead, it was plain annoying. However, it didn’t sting our enthusiasm on this gorgeous day in Evanston for the battle of “Who’s the best in Illinois?” With the Fighting Illini struggling for relevancy and the Wildcats scrambling to crawl out of the losing-streak quicksand they put themselves into last year, Northern Illinois has surfaced at the top with an opportunity today to make it official.
These intrastate foes separated by a mere 75 miles provided a bowl game atmosphere with both bands and solid representation from both fan bases. Jim Cornelison, national anthem hero for the Chicago Blackhawks, provided some local flair with his crowd frenzying rendition of our nation’s song at the onset of this battle. It was all part of Heroes’ Day at Ryan Field, where tributes to our country and those who serve was on display. The logo on the field, the helmet, and the souvenir hats that our group received were all decked in an American flag theme. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the team itself was unable to keep up with the hero motif.
The stage was set when Husky fans had their chests puffed out brimming with confidence, while slumping Wildcat fans strapped on another indifferent gameday face. The action on the field fed from that energy and a scoreless first half turned into an NIU breakout game in the second. We sat amongst a boisterous bunch of Northern fans boasting large claims such as “We’re the state’s best team!” and “Ryan Field is OUR house!” Well, many visiting fans have been able to make the latter claim lately. This is not the as-advertisted Wildcats that are supposed to represent Chicago’s Big Ten team. Our College Football Tour clan had very little to cheer about outside of receiving recognition on the scoreboard. NIU kept the purple silent.
Nevertheless, I always say that Ryan Field is an underrated experience. The surrounding campus and residential space around this venerable stadium fills with classic college football energy. The lakefront, the campus, and el train transportation all combine to give Northwestern a uniquely urban, yet old world atmosphere. Northern Illinois captured that energy today and took home the unofficial title of “state’s best team.” The Wildcats, on the other hand, will need more time to recapture the hero status that they once championed.