For a Chicagoan, a Northwestern game is just an el train ride away. I’ve been telling so many people that about the convenience of getting to Ryan Field on a football Saturday, yet I have never used that method to get there myself. Today happened to be the perfect day. Along with this first, this game would also be the very first game that I would attend by myself. Oh, the freedom! My friends enjoy traveling to games with me, but at the speed I like to go, I’ve always felt a bit held up. Today’s game in Evanston would be college football at top speed.
My love affair with Camp Randall began 25 years ago. It wasn’t love at first sight – I was dragged to games as a kid. But, as I attended more games, I grew up with a Wisconsin program that experienced its own growth spurt. We attended many games in the 90s as Wisconsin developed into a championship caliber team. Becoming a student at UW-Madison further deepened the well of memories that this stadium generated for me, and it has carried on into my adulthood.
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.
Nebraska’s inaugural visits to each Big Ten stadium as a new member of the conference have become gargantuan events, and the trip to Evanston would be no different. Northwestern rolled out the purple carpet, but perhaps they were a bit over-welcoming. Nebraska is known for having fans that travel well, and Northwestern is known for leaving seats available in their home stadium. The result? Lots of red. How much you ask? Well, let’s put it this way: Today would NOT be the day for Northwestern to get aerial shots of Ryan Field to impress potential recruits.
Built up as the “Brain Bowl” or “S.A.T Bowl,” Vanderbilt and Northwestern is a budding rivalry that produced a rare September showdown between the SEC and Big Ten. Today would also mark the second annual College Football Tour Northwestern tailgate. Thirty of us gathered on a gorgeous day in Evanston – the kind of early autumn afternoon that still is clinging to summer with all its might. Whether by el train or car, our group converged on a spot not far from Ryan Field to toss the football, toss a few bean bags, and banter about our favorite teams and conference supremacy. For half of the Big Ten, today would be a B1G disaster on the gridiron. However, this game provided the conference something to gloat about. Fireworks lit up the evening sky as the Wildcats emerged from the tunnel ready to prove that their thrilling victory over Syracuse a week earlier was a harbinger for even greater action to come. The “N” on both the Northwestern helmets and at midfield were decorated in stars and stripes to honor 9/11. Honoring military and country has been a major point of emphasis at NU and they have executed this quite well.
The last time we visited Northwestern, they were struggling to finish off Penn State and lost a tough game at home. Three weeks later, the Wildcats have put together two straight wins including last week’s stunning upset at #10 Nebraska. Funny thing- It always seems like every year, Northwestern loses to someone they have no business losing to (this year, Army) and defeating a team they have no business beating (this year, Nebraska). Now, Rice comes in having to confront these confident Cats.
Our inaugural College Football Tour Northwestern tailgate took place with Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions charging into Evanston. A variety of Big Ten fans were represented as we set up a few blocks from Ryan Field to experience a perfect autumn afternoon tailgate. After a few footballs and bean bags were tossed, dusk began to take effect and the temperature took a dip. We walked over to an brightly illuminated Ryan Field ready for this Big Ten clash.
Points are to the Wisconsin offense as butter is to Paula Deen’s recipes…neither can get enough. In their final three games, the Badgers piled 83 points on Indiana, 48 on Michigan, and 70 big sticks of butter on Northwestern to solidify a Big Ten championship and a trip to Pasadena. Northwestern had lost their star quarterback two weeks earlier and were scrambling to redefine themselves as they walked into a red and white blender set on frappe. With all that was motivating Wisconsin, the Wildcats didn’t stand a chance, and now, the Rose Bowl awaits. The Grand Marshal for this year’s Rose Bowl is Food Network Star, Paula Deen. See how it all comes full circle?
As soon as the announcement was made that College Gameday would be live from Wrigley Field, my mind began to create signs for this historic matchup. The best I could come up with was “Go ‘Cats!” with the “C” being the Cubs logo. The magnitude of my sign’s creativity decreased once gameday arrived. We hopped the Clark Street bus at around 6:30am and began to venture toward Addison. The bus stopped at the corner and the College Gameday stage and bus appeared at the right, while the classic “Wrigley Field” sign came into view at the left. Only this time, its red hue had been replaced with purple.
Seriously. How does Michigan State get away with playing their first game out of the state of Michigan in mid October. I know it’s an election year, but really, did they have to give THAT much to the senator’s campaign? Well, Northwestern isn’t much of a road trip. I’m not discounting the Wildcats’ ability, but home field advantage in Evanston is sometimes comparable to a Chucky-E-Cheese. However, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit reminded viewers that Ryan Field can put opponents to sleep. It has the same effect as poppies have on the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Dorothy.