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.