Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked this week to compare the atmosphere at Wildcats home football games now to when he played there in 1993.
“Night and day, my friend,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald was a linebacker on Gary Barnett’s teams that seemingly came from nowhere to win Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996. The Wildcats won another share of the conference title in 2000 before backsliding for a few years.
Now, in Fitzgerald’s eighth year as coach, Northwestern is definitely a program on the rise. After going 10-3 last year, the school began construction on a $220 million lakefront facility that will double as a football headquarters and student center.
Northwestern still ranks last in the Big Ten with an average home attendance of 34,629, but there won’t be an empty spot at 47,000-seat Ryan Field on Saturday, when the No. 16 Wildcats take on No. 4 Ohio State.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” is coming to Evanston on Saturday morning, and the game itself will get prime-time treatment. This is Northwestern’s chance to prove it’s a serious Big Ten contender again.
As recently as last year, Nebraska fans flooded Ryan Field, creating noise levels that forced the home team to use a silent snap count. It’s been the same thing with Ohio State fans in previous years.
“They probably have more alumni in the Chicagoland than we do from a pure numbers standpoint,” Fitzgerald said, noting that Ohio State has close to 50,000 undergraduate students, compared to 8,000 for Northwestern. “But our fans have been incredibly supportive. Our season-ticket sales are at an all-time high. I’m expecting a very solid home-field advantage for us.”
Still, a skeptic can’t help wondering: Is Northwestern for real?
Last year, the Wildcats quietly came a few plays from winning the Legends Division, losing 29-28 to Nebraska and 38-31 to Michigan, before winning their first bowl game since 1949, a 34-20 victory over Mississippi in the Gator Bowl.
Most of their top weapons returned, including the quarterback combination of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. That duo has completed 70.5 percent of its passes this season.
“The only reason why this two-quarterback system works is because of our young men,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re good friends, they have the utmost respect for each other, and they want what everyone in our program wants, and that’s what’s best for the team.”
Northwestern went 4-0 in nonconference play, winning at California, followed with home victories over Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. The Wildcats are coming off a bye week, and they will have Venric Mark back from a leg injury. Mark was an All-America punt returner last season and averaged 6.0 yards per carry as a running back.
The Ohio State defense was impressive in a 31-24 home victory over Wisconsin last week, but the Buckeyes lost senior safety Christian Bryant to a broken ankle on the game’s second-to-last play.
“This is the one guy I thought was an incredible leader,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “He was very important to our staff and team, so it’s a sucker punch.”
Northwestern should be able to score against Ohio State, but the big question is can the Wildcats stop an offense that ranks sixth nationally, averaging 48.2 points per game.
“There’s an All-Big Ten player at every position on their offense,” Fitzgerald said.
But Northwestern has made 19 interceptions in its past seven games dating to last season. If Braxton Miller gets careless with the ball, the Wildcats will be ready to pounce, and so will their fans.
Big Ten Short Takes
• Everyone knew Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis was good, but he looked Eric Decker-like against Ohio State, with 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. He did all that, despite being shadowed by Ohio State All-America cornerback Bradley Roby.
On the other side of the ball, Badgers linebacker Chris Borland was all over the field, making 16 tackles in the losing effort. No team will enjoy playing the Badgers the rest of the way.
• Gophers fans would feel better about last week’s 23-7 loss, if Iowa follows through with another victory over Michigan State. Last year, Iowa won a defensive struggle in East Lansing 19-16 in double overtime. Iowa trailed 13-6 until Mark Weisman ran for a touchdown with 55 seconds left, forcing OT, and Mike Meyer hit two more field goals to win it.
• Illinois still looks like the most improved team in the conference. After going 2-10 in Tim Beckman’s first year, the Illini are 3-1 heading into Big Ten play.
Illinois has enough playmakers to potentially give Nebraska’s porous defense another test Saturday in Lincoln. Washington rolled up 615 yards against the Illini three weeks ago, but the young defense made strides of late, holding Miami (Ohio) to 250 yards last week.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0): Back at full strength against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes looked capable of running the table.
2. Northwestern (4-0): The Wildcats have another test next week, at Wisconsin, before the Gophers visit Oct. 19.
3. Michigan (4-0): The Wolverines’ 17-game home winning streak is the longest of any BCS conference school.
4. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1): Melvin Gordon said his left knee is fine and that he will be ready for Northwestern next week.
5. Michigan State (3-1): Spartans fans hope the week off helped their team sort out its quarterback mess.
6. Nebraska (3-1): With Taylor Martinez still hobbled, Tommie Armstrong Jr. will start, and Ron Kellogg likely will play.
7. Penn State (3-1): After playing Indiana on Saturday, the Nittany Lions face Michigan and Ohio State.
8. Iowa (4-1, 1-0): The doubts are starting to subside for redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock.
9. Illinois (3-1): Nathan Scheelhaase threw four touchdown passes last year. This year, he has thrown 12.
10. Gophers (4-1, 0-1): Facing Michigan, Northwestern and Nebraska, will need an upset victory to avoid a 0-4 Big Ten start.
11. Indiana (2-2): The Hoosiers face Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan before Gophers visit on Nov. 2.
12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1): True freshman quarterback Danny Etling offers the Boilermakers a new ray of hope.