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.
Riding the red line in Chicago on this day took an entirely different meaning. Badger fans who crossed the state line, and alums living in Chicago who had yanked their favorite Wisconsin tee off the hanger, all packed the el train with red as it zipped its way downtown and unloaded a steady red stream at the Roosevelt stop. Fans from both sides began to merge near Grant Park and banter back and forth while walking under Lake Shire Drive to get to Soldier Field. This home to the Chicago Bears became “Huskie Country” for the day.
Early evening summer kickoff in Madison = perfect day. The day begins with a stop around the Capitol to experience one of the Midwest’s finest and largest farmer’s markets. Fans draped in red herd over to the terrace to enjoy a beverage by the lake and take in a peaceful afternoon. From here, your choice of tailgates are endless finishing with the pregame band concert near Camp Randall Stadium.
Ball State University might want to replace their maintenance staff with NIU tailback Garrett Wolfe as he covered more ground and clipped more blades of grass with his shoes than John Deere could with a fleet of mowers. On an evening where nearly every type of imaginable weather came over Sheumann Stadium, nothing could stop the nation’s leading rusher.
DeKalb, Illinois is not that far from the city life of Chicago, but it may as well be in north central North Dakota. From interstate 88, you can see the Huskie Stadium, that is if the corn has already been harvested. Due to television contracts with ESPN, many Middle-American conference games fall on weekday nights, but that does not dull the enthusiasm. Many folks drive in from work and it may take a while to get adjusted to the college football mindset, but once the Huskies take the field to a barrage of fireworks, that ol’ Saturday feeling comes back.
Wednesday evenings weren’t made for college football. But, somehow television has reordered traditional methods. Saturday is still college’s holy day, but while the NFL has Monday night football, college has captured every other weekday night to accommodate the needs of all conferences’ exposure through television. The Middle American Conference leads the pack in weekday games. Amazingly, the atmosphere doesn’t change.
DeKalb, Illinois isn’t exactly a cauldron of college football thrills, but Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak has been generating a feisty team in his Huskies. Both Wisconsin and Northern Illinois have been rather volatile in their beginnings. The Badgers stumbled, but succeeded against Fresno State and returned with a pounding of West Virginia. The Huskies stunned Wake Forest at home and then got buried by South Florida. Which teams would appear on this overcast day in Madison?
By halftime, it was evident that the Northern Illinois fans making the trip up I-90 to Madison might be going home with a second straight win over a BCS team this season. From the upper deck looking down, it was challenging to imagine a 22-point underdog giving Badger fans such heartache. Wisconsin clung to a tenuous 10-6 advantage going into the second half. They stretched that lead to 17-9 offering some relief to befuddled Badger fans trying to make sense of this team.
The Huskies wanted to be the stars in this thriller and took center stage right from the first play of the fourth quarter scoring a touchdown and slicing Wisconsin’s lead to two with a missed conversion. At 17-15, Wisconsin looked far too charitable against the Huskies. NIU found more holes than a cheese grater in the Badger defensive line. Unfortunately, they were not as small and Wisconsin’s cheese got grated.
Failing to move the ball, Wisconsin continued to return it to Northern Illinois who found the paint again with their backup tailback Michael Turner scoring his second of the day and transforming Camp Randall into a church – both in noise level and amount of prayer.
Nerves shook and hearts dropped when Wisconsin had to give up the ball with just under three minutes remaining. However, an impetuous defense kept the Huskies from progressing and assisted by a few flags, the Wisconsin offense started what would be their final complete drive at the fifty-yard line. Quarterback Brooks Bollinger dashed to a phone booth and changed into his superhero costume before he took the field. Tossing a few key completions and forcing a few more penalties surged the Badgers to the two-yard line where Bollinger snuck it in himself. With that dive, Wisconsin avoided a degrading loss, but still became the most dubious 4-0 team in the country. With Arizona swooping in next week, a multi-point inspection is in order because heroics can only go so far.