Scratching and clawing is the way wildcats fight, and the Northwestern Wildcats have been fighting for decades – scratching to be noticed and clawing for relevancy. The dark days of the 70s and 80s are long gone, but they still cast a long shadow over the present day program. Despite multiple visits to the top 25 and five straight bowl appearances, many outside the Big Ten (and still many within) struggle to view a victory over Northwestern as a notable accomplishment. Attempts to remedy the stigma include branding the program with the catch phrase, “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” The moniker has caught fire, but has yet to engulf the city’s sports fan base. Nevertheless, the Wildcats keep scratching and winning. Last season, they recorded their first bowl victory since 1949 and that momentum is carrying into this season. Achieving respect as a conference title contender is still a hump to get over, but last week’s win over Cal and a win over Syracuse in Evanston tonight would get the season rolling in the right direction.
Loud. Rowdy. Hostile. Carter-Finley Stadium can be described as any of these. Gameday in Raleigh is a dynamic event and tailgating is the cornerstone of it all. Circling the perimeter of the stadium is a party that stretches to the tree lines and fences. Each setup offers a flurry of activity coupled with an array of traditional foods and southern delicacies. The fans receive their first glimpse of entertainment as the NC State football buses drop the team off for their traditional walk to the stadium known as the Walk of Champions. Fans cram and cheer together as they sneak a peek at their beloved Wolfpack on their way into Carter-Finely.
Not much could have prepared me for what I was about to witness. Call it a tale of two halves. Call it an unexpected upset. Call it an epic comeback. However it’s defined, it became the most improbable finish I have ever seen. We had just finished our morning adventure in Chapel Hill and thank goodness that we took a breath in between because we would need the oxygen to support all our screaming. Raleigh was ready.
Slap on some khaki shorts and a baby blue button down. It’s time for Carolina football. Okay, not everyone here dresses this way, but enough to remind you that this is football in the south. One thing is for certain – the gameday experience in Chapel Hill is one of the best.
No post-season? No problem. Probation hasn’t fazed North Carolina, and witnessing the wild white out that crowded Kenan Stadium, any casual observer would be hard pressed to find clues that this team has suffered a set-back by the NCAA. With the invasion of Virginia Tech and their fans, Chapel Hill was charged up with activity from Franklin Street to the Old Well and beyond. Fraternities spilled over with anticipation, fans climbed the famed bell tower and snapped pictures with Rameses, the band pounded out its pregame routine, and the crowd marched its way over to the stadium. Clearly, the NCAA crackdown wasn’t going to break the stride of gameday on this campus.
Maryland is so the new Oregon. Thanks to UO grad and Nike CEO, Phil Knight, The Ducks have recently been known as the team with a variety of uniform combinations containing loud neon colors. Well, Maryland grad and UnderArmour CEO, Kevin Plank, must have thought that two can play at this game. Prior to the home opener against Miami, the Terrapin players were donning tortoise shell helmets with matching uniforms. Nobody, not even the players, knew what would happen next. After the team went into the locker room after pregame warmups, the Terps reentered Byrd Stadium with wild and wacky uniforms splattering the Maryland state flag’s emblem all over in various ways. Even though these uniforms received much nationwide criticism, it charged up the packed house in College Park.
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is one of the few college football stadiums named after a company. But, that does not mean that it has sold out in the quality of atmosphere. The city of Louisville experiences a bit of an identity crisis as it is the southern point of the north and the northern part of the south. A sign providing all the different pronunciations of the city welcomes you into the stadium and it illustrates the identity issues this place possesses. The stadium is located on a sports complex that houses every sporting arena imaginable from swimming to lacrosse. The walk up to the stadium is interesting as one side reveals the many sporting arenas and a Papa John’s pizza joint (of course), while the other side is grossly industrial. It’s as if you are walking on the border between two different countries.
I know fans are crazy in the south, but I have been holding onto a misconception that the extreme craziness was reserved for the Southeastern Conference…until I ran into a throng of Middle Tennessee State fans. The passion began to border hostility which certainly was amazing for fans cheering on a 2-4 team from the Sun Belt conference. Anyhow, the Blue Raiders took an early 14-0 lead with an interception return for a touchdown followed by a halfback pass for another score. From there on, Louisville took over…
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was not exactly booming with excitement on this homecoming Saturday, but the fans came in good force on a beautiful day that really was meant for football. The early lead by Middle Tennessee State caught the crowd off-guard. But, it did not take long for the Cardinals to make a second half push and hold off the Blue Raiders 42-23.
While Louisville fans casually walked away from an expected victory, Blue Raider fans kept the fervor comin’. A late mess of poor calls by the referees had the fans in blue screaming, yelling, and taking it out on those clad in red. All of this from a team working out of a conference that earns only one bowl bid a year? If this were a MAC team like Western Michigan or Akron, there would a few groans and grunts, but not the outright southern inhospitality that was displayed on Saturday. Honestly, I was impressed and wished more of that same passion from lower echelon midwestern teams. Nevertheless, Cardinal fans went received a happy homecoming while turning a deaf ear to their neighbors from the south.
How many different ways can oranges be squeezed into orange juice? Ask Syracuse. In Greg Robinson’s three years on campus, the Orange have experience only seven wins. Often the fourth year at a program is the lucky year for coaches. The trip to Evanston brought along hopes for a brighter future at Syracuse. Northwestern, under third year head coach Pat Fitzgerald, was looking for the next step that would lead them to the post season.
The old phrase, “What goes around comes around” couldn’t have been more fitting for our second game of the day between Duke and Northwestern. Each team exchanged turnovers on their opening plays validating that phrase with immediate gratification. To learn how this phrase applies on a more grand scale, we have to go back 25 years when Northwestern was riding a 34 game losing streak. The Northern Illinois huskies helped to snap that dreaded streak in 1982 causing fans to storm the field, tear down the goal posts, and hoist them into Lake Michigan. Now, in 2007, the Wildcats are in a better place athletically, but Duke is the team that comes in carrying a 22 game monkey on their back. On this day, it would be Northwestern’s turn to help end the pain of a dysfunctional football program. It would be done in heart-halting fashion, as well.