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10 things to know about the 2017 Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats are preparing for a season with weighty expectations and bowl win momentum. But there are still plenty of questions to answer as the season begins.

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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

It is officially game week. Northwestern has a depth chart (they do not hide it like some other teams in the Big Ten, although finding it on Northwestern’s Web site is more difficult than it usually is) and they will have an opponent to play Saturday at Ryan Field.

It is an exciting time for the Wildcats. They have the belief they can win the Big Ten West. Pat Fitzgerald is pretty openly talking about it, calling it the last hurdle his program has to climb.

For a team like Northwestern, there are always a few years where things seem to fall into place for them. That is the feeling about this season. The Wildcats return a lot of experience at key skill positions. And, yes, there is no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule. Wisconsin is recovering to some extent. The pathway seems clear.

That is always the thing about Northwestern, right? No one is ever sure if this is the year the program turns that corner. The last time the team won a bowl game and came into the offseason with all this momentum, the team fell flat and missed a bowl game. It took years to recover.

Northwestern is looking to reverse that and make something of its 2017 season. Something more than a simple bowl trip. LIke always with Northwestern things could just as easily go really bad as they could go really well.

Still, Northwestern has quietly become a darkhorse to win the Big Ten West. In fact, it feels like most predictions have them finishing second. That puts the emphasis on the Sept. 30 game against Wisconsin. That Big Ten opener could very well put Northwestern in the driver’s seat or end those Big Ten West hopes pretty early (especially with Penn State coming the following week).

So what is it about Northwestern that has everyone excited? There is a ton as the season gets set to begin.

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1. Justin Jackson keeps running

It may come as a surprise to some observers, but the leading rusher in the Big Ten last year came from the Northwestern Wildcats. Justin Jackson has carried a heavy load for this offense the last three years and he seems not to care. He gets stronger as the game goes on.

Jackson rushed for 1,524 yards last year on 298 carries. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry. And he was incredibly durable.

Even for a running back of his relatively short 5-foot-11 stature, Jackson is just difficult to bring down. He does not break away from defenses often — unless they are Pitt, which he did plenty of times in rushing for more than 300 yards in a MVP performance. But Jackson is the workhorse. He is the guy Northwestern will run everything through.

2. Clayton Thorson can sling it too

Northwestern’s offense was still a bit basic last year. But Clayton Thorson took some major steps in his sophomore year. He was no longer simply the game manager. Thorson had to go out and take control of a few games.

The team only expects him to continue growing. After his 3,182 passing yards year last season, Thorson showed plenty of room to grow. He attended the Peyton Manning Passing Academy this summer. And he now gives Northwestern one of the best quarterback-running back combos. It still feels like Thorson is scratching the surface.

The only issue is who he passes to. So much of his passes went to surprising breakout receiver Austin Carr last year. It became Thorson’s security blanket. Someone with those wide receivers will have to step up. But Thorson should be ready to help someone take that step.

3. Recruiting comes to roost

For several years, Northwestern has touted it is bringing in its best recruiting class ever. This is year after year. Pat Fitzgerald has done a lot of work to get Northwestern’s talent level up. It shows itself in how the Wildcats are able to replace graduating seniors.

That will come into play this year where NU’s talent depth will get tested more than ever. Especially on defense.

The team will rely on new starters Paddy Fisher and Brett Walsh at linebacker to help fill the void left by Anthony Walker (more on that in a bit). The team also will have new defensive lineman in Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt. This is a front seven short on experience, but full of talent. Northwestern is and should be cautiously optimistic of what this group can do.

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4. Anthony Walker’s void

Anthony Walker became the first player to leave Northwestern early for the NFL Draft since 1996. And it was well deserved. Walker was a monster at middle linebacker, able to get into the backfield and force turnovers when his team needed him. He did the position proud.

Filling that void is of course very difficult. And Northwestern may spend a good chunk of the year seeking not only to fill the void at middle linebacker but also the leadership void.

Godwin Igwebuike should help with the latter. He plays like a linebacker at safet, ball hawking and forcing turnovers. He is good at getting downhill to make tackles. But the task of filling that middle linebacker role will go to newcomer Paddy Fisher. The freshman shined last year in practice during a redshirt year, but this is the big time for him and his backup, the more experienced Nathan Fox.

5. The Sky Team

Northwestern’s undoubted strength on defense is in the secondary. Last year’s group was similarly experienced, but injuries slowed them down. Especially to Keith Watkins II and senior Matthew Harris. That led to the passing defense being a bit porous last year, but it gave a lot of talented cornerbacks a ton of experience.

Watkins is back from his injury this year and will start Saturday against Nevada. Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Montrage Hartage all had stellar seasons last year. That is quite a fearsome quartet to pass against. It will be Northwestern’s undoubted strength.

The Wildcats have had a bend-don’t-break defense the last few years. They certainly make it tough for teams to move the ball. Northwestern will have to lean on them heavily, particularly early in the season. Because . . .

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6. Where does the pass rush come from?

The big question for Northwestern this year where be about the pass rush. Last year, the Wildcats had Anthony Walker, Nathan Hall and Ifeadi Odenigbo (the conference’s leading sacker) and they were still among the worst in generating pressure and sacks in the conference. Now all three of those players are gone, replaced in the front seven by a lot of inexperience.

Tyler Lancaster and Joe Gaziano provide some hope of generating some pressure. Lancaster has done a good job eating blocks and is known as one of the strongest players on the team. And Gaziano established himself with his big hit against Michigan State. But it is all unproven.

And the linebackers are just as inexperienced. The secondary will hold itself up, but it will need some pressure to make the team’s Big Ten dreams a reality.

7. Offensive line shifting

Just like the defensive line, the offensive line has some big questions too. And Northwestern is not starting from a good spot. The Wildcats return a lot of their starters from last year, but that may not be a good thing. Northwestern gave up plenty of sacks last year. Some of that was Clayton Thorson holding onto the ball too long.

So the Wildcats are trying to find the right combination along the offensive line. They will Jared Thomas, Blake Hance, Brad North, Tommy Doles and Gunnar Vogel will get the first call. Hance, North and Doles were stalwarts along the line last year. And North, playing at center, was a solid player last year.

But the team is going to be experimenting still. But there is still not a lot of depth there. And the play of the offensive line could very well determine just how far Northwestern can go.

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8. Bowl momentum

Northwestern is not too familiar with winning bowl games. The program has just three bowl wins ever. But two have come in the last three bowl appearances. Last year’s Pinstripe Bowl win seemed to validate the team and make it feel better than a 7-6 season.

Northwestern wanted to build that momentum into the offseason. That is what the team wanted to do after its 2013 Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Of course, the team cratered after a 4-0 start in 2013 and missed a bowl game by one game. Injuries, internal discord over the unionization effort and absolutely rotten luck cost the team then.

The question facing Northwestern this year is whether Pat Fitzgerald learned any lessons from his preparation. All signs point to the Wildcats having learned that lesson and at minimum getting to a bowl again. But, of course, Northwestern wants more.

9. The Superback

As noted, Northwestern’s wide receivers are a huge question mark for the team. The Wildcats have a quarterback who can make all the throws, but do not have the receivers with experience and reliability. Not like Austin Carr did.

That leaves Northwestern looking to an unlikely place to lead the receiving corps. Their version of the tight end — the super back.

And Garrett Dickerson can play the role. He is a big 6-foot-3, 248 pounds with good hands and the ability to catch the ball underneath and turn up field. Without a burner on the edge, or a reliable one quite yet, Northwestern’s patient offense will look to use Dickerson a lot to get up the field. Also watch out for wide receiver Ben Skowronek to help loosen the defense underneath.

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10. Looking for a Vault

The wide receiver corps. for the Wildcats has taken quite a few hits this offseason. In addition to losing Austin Carr, the Wildcats will be without speedster Solomon Vault. So there is the question of who will stretch the field for Northwestern. If Dickerson and Skowronek can help the team underneath, who is making the linebackers thing about what is going on behind them?

That will fall to someone else. As will the punt return duties, where Vault was a bit of a game changer when he did get his hands on the ball. Flynn Nagel is going to get the first crack at filling both of those roles.

Nagel is very capable. He has good speed and is smart with the ball. Like a lot of the undersized receivers Northwestern has, the question is whether he can get separation. But the Wildcats have used Nagel plenty in the run game even and there is no reason to think Nagel will not be a threat for the Wildcats this season.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Northwestern

Predicting the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats season

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What Northwestern is appropriately billing as the “Best Home Schedule in College Football” stands between the red hot Cats, who ride the longest active winning streak among power conference teams at 8 games into 2018, and their first back-to-back winning regular seasons since doing it three straight from 2008 through 2010. While Pat Fitzgerald has brought Cats fans higher highs in the second half of his first 12 years on the job, reaching 10 wins 3 times, consistency (Justin Jackson notwithstanding) has not been the program’s forte.

One has to believe Fitz has learned the lesson of 2016, where the Cats returned almost everyone from the 10 win regular season of 2015, only to start sluggishly at home against Western Michigan and, gasp, Illinois State. It took a Herculean regular season from Austin Carr and a virtuoso Justin Jackson Pinstripe Bowl to eek out a 7-6 campaign. While the Las Vegas sportsbooks pegged NU for another 6-6 regular season, Fitzgerald would be on the end of the “fool me twice” axiom if he doesn’t get the Cats to 7-5, at a minimum.

Sorting NU’s schedule into three tiers of difficulty, from “easy peasy”, to “flip a coin”, to “ain’t gonna happen” is complicated by the fact that their arguably 3 toughest opponents all come to Evanston. The lone road game versus a ranked team is against Michigan State, a team they’ve beaten each of the last two years, and the last two times they’ve played in Spartan Stadium. In other words, no trips to Clemson or Alabama for NU in 2018.

The Easy Peasy’s

  • Week 2: Duke at home. It takes some arrogance to treat Duke this way after their thorough domination of the Cats in Durham last year, but that butt-whooping only serves to make it more likely they will be getting NU’s best shot this time. This is year 4 of 4 in this annual P5 non-conference matchup of schools made for each other, before they take 2019 and ’20 off and resume in ‘21. The thought of NU dropping their home opener after what looks to be a strong start on the road in conference is too unlikely to resemble a coin-flip.
  • Week 3: Akron at home. The only real question is whether this, or Illinois, is the Cats’ easiest game. Even a nightmare scenario of looking ahead to Michigan could be cured with a comeback starting as late as mid-3rd quarter. If Akron plays Nebraska tough in the opener, NU will have enough notice to avoid disaster.
  • Week 7: Nebraska at home. This is on the fringe of a coin-flip, but NU is wise enough to beat up on Scott Frost before he gets settled in. The home team hasn’t won in this matchup since the Kellogg-Westerkamp hail mary in 2013, but it would take a season collapse the likes of NU’s 2013 for them not to win this one.
  • Week 8: At Rutgers. NU may be facing the least intimidating 6-1 B1G team in history on October 20th. Rutgers has the most back-heavy schedule in all of college football. Their lowest ranked November opponent is #14 Michigan. It’s imperative that NU start their losing streak in October.
  • Week 12: At Minnesota. It’s a long season, and a lot can change by mid-November, but Minnesota’s offense was just too putrid against quality competition in 2017 for me to fear a repeat of 2016, when they beat NU thoroughly at home. If things are going well for NU, they should have the finish line in sight and leave no room for a Gopher upset.
  • Week 13: Illinois at home. Prove me wrong Lovie. Inject life into the Illini. I say it as a graduate of Champaign, having seen J. Leman and Rashard Mendenhall turn things around near instantaneously firsthand. It’s been done, but until it’s happening, run up the score Fitz. The Cats could always use more style points.

The Coin-Flips

  • Week 1: At Purdue. While I’m very confident NU will win, likely by 10+, it’s more of a gut feeling, and this game could easily be an ambush if NU lets the crowd get into it or the secondary loses focus. I’m of the belief Clayton Thorson is 95% healthy or better, and will be the starter Thursday night. The key to this game will be NU’s offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage against a Purdue defense seeking to replace key pieces from 2017. Some short throws to Nagel, Lees and Green, but a heavy dose of Jeremy Larkin should be expected. Maybe even John Moten can rediscover the magic of his career day in West Lafayette in 2016.
  • Week 6: At Michigan State. It appears I’m more skeptical of Sparty than the average critic. Dantonio’s a very solid coach, and barring multiple upsets and injuries, MSU will be a 10-15 point favorite in this contest. I just don’t see MSU recreating the magic of 2015’s run to the playoff. The fact NU faces the Spartans a week before their season-defining Penn St-Michigan back-to-back opens the door to a look ahead trap scenario as well. NU will be the underdog, but this a very winnable game.
  • Week 9: Wisconsin at home. Color me skeptical of the 2018 Badgers given the absurdly high expectations the national media has bestowed upon them. The last time UW was this high (#4) in the AP Preseason Poll was 2000, and the eventual 8-4 campaign’s derailment was started by none other than a Damien Anderson led NU team. I get that Jonathan Taylor is a stud and the line is so good they could probably run Hornibrook off-tackle for 4 yards a carry. But returning just 3 starters on defense is a big deal. Unless Hornibrook plays at his Orange Bowl level week-in week-out the margin of error isn’t there for a playoff a run through a schedule that includes Iowa, Michigan, NU, Penn State and Purdue, all on the road.
  • Week 10: Notre Dame at home. Like the MSU game, NU comes into this matchup with a 2-game winning streak against the Irish. Similar to Fitzgerald at NU, Brian Kelly has had a difficult time backing up his 10 win seasons in South Bend, never doing better than an 8-4 regular season. This game may very well come down to the team who has more to play for by the time November 3rd rolls around. If NU has come through against even just one of Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, they should have enough wind at their back to give ND a very tough game.
  • Week 11: At Iowa. Pat Fitzgerald’s notorious success against Iowa has been on display recently, winning each of the last 2 seasons to get to 7-5 versus the Hawkeyes all-time as a coach. It was especially ugly last year, winning 17-10 in OT. However, I’m bullish on Iowa this year thinking that their draw of Wisconsin and NU at home may provide the tiebreaker boost they need in the B1G West. An Iowa win is anything but a foregone conclusion though, just look at how the Cats turned their 2016 season around with a win there despite going in 1-3.

Ain’t Gonna Happen

  • Week 5: Michigan at home. I don’t really think this is a game that is impossible to win, but at the same time I think there’s a 0.0% chance NU goes 12-0 in the regular season, so winning them all is fairly described as “ain’t gonna happen”. The problem, as brutally evidenced in the 2015 38-0 shutout, is that Michigan’s strengths are perfectly suited to beat Northwestern. They’re impossible to run against, so you have to throw, but NU lacks the over-the-top speed on the outside to open up anything underneath. On offense, Michigan doesn’t open themselves up to negative run plays, mainly operating between the tackles, forcing an undersized NU team to repeatedly stuff them and avoiding a situation where NU’s front 7 can be aggressive. Michigan has won 5 straight and 10 of 11 against the Cats since the instant super-classic 54-51 NU win in 2000 (aka “the Anthony Thomas fumble game”). But they won 19 straight before NU knocked them out in the Big House in 1995, the first of two straight Cats wins. So never say never.

Overall

If NU can manage to win 3 of 5 coin-flips, which I think they certainly can given that Purdue is really on the margin, that would take them to 9-3. Sweeping the divisional games and holding up at Rutgers just might be enough to get to Indianapolis. The clear next step for a program itching to take it.

For another perspective, here’s a look at our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, and his game-by-game breakdown of the Wildcats: 

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Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats trying to get out of the wheel of mediocrity

The Northwestern Wildcats have reached a consistent level where they can compete for a bowl game and achieve some of their goals. When will they finally contend for a Big Ten title? That is still the question for this program.

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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats,

The Northwestern Wildcats’ goal board is the same every year. On top is to win the College Football Playoff. Beneath that is to win a bowl game. Beneath that is to win a Big Ten title. Beneath, that the Big Ten West. And then the various goals to get better every day and do well academically and in the weight room.

The Wildcat Way, etc.

Many of those goals have seemed aspirational in the past. They were the direction the team wanted to move in and get to. They needed the tools — hello Ryan Fieldhouse — to get there. And they needed the results.

The Wildcats now have two 10-win seasons in the last three years. They have reached a level of consistency the program has never seen before, constantly graduating classes with the most wins in school history.

Northwestern’s general football progress is moving in the right direction. Things are constantly looking up for the program.

The Wildcats have the feeling they are on the precipice.

But it would not be Northwestern if there was not that constant feeling of dread. That feeling the team is on the precipice of collapse. For every 10-3 Gator Bowl season there are the two 5-7 seasons that followed where Northwestern failed to live up to its weighty expectations. Or for every 10-3 Outback Bowl season there is a frustrating 7-6 season that follows.

How will Northwestern follow this 10-3 iteration? One where their quarterback will start the season recovering from an ACL tear (unclear for August’s opener at Purdue) and they will be replacing their starting running back and all-time leading rusher?

One where Northwestern too will face an incredibly difficult schedule that features home games against Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin. Getting back to 10-3 this year will be difficult. And, on top of that, Northwestern will have to avoid the slow starts that have plagued the last few seasons.

The Wildcats cannot afford losses to Duke like it did last year or <gasp> Western Michigan and Illinois State like two years ago. That was a big reason for that season’s ultimate disappointment.

Northwestern the last few years has been good enough to be a threat and put together solid seasons — with solid bowl games to follow (and two straight bowl wins). But the Wildcats have not ever been a threat to win the Big Ten West. Even with those 10-3 seasons on their ledger.

Last year, Northwestern had the early loss to Duke, but then lost to Wisconsin and Penn State in its first two Big Ten games. That took the team out of the running from the start. The Wildcats were never Big Ten West contenders last year unless Wisconsin seriously slipped up. Just like they were never contenders in the Big Ten West in 2015 after the Hawkeyes thrashed them at Ryan Field on their way to an undefeated regular season.

Where does this leave Northwestern this year? Where does that leave the team for the future?

The next two seasons feel like transition years. Northwestern has long relied on “perfect” seasons where veteran leaders at key positions align to have special seasons. That was certainly last year with Justin Jackson playing his senior year with several veterans on defense and Clayton Thorson as a junior quarterback.

Thorson is a senior this year and while Northwestern’s defense has reached a level of consistency in the past few seasons, it is a veteran group with experience all over. Next year’s team will not have the same kind of reliable talent — barring any surprise emerging players this year, which is very possible especially on defense.

Not even Hunter Johnson and his potential replacing Clayton Thorson would seemingly save the Wildcats from that realm of uncertainty with their roster and their future.

Northwestern’s future seems much brighter than it did a decade ago. Recruiting continues to go smoothly — see the recruitment of Hunter Johnson and the continuing emergence of young players like Samdup Miller and Paddy Fisher — and the new facilities will attract more eyes and attention from recruits considering the school.

That all seems to suggest Northwestern will see the results match on the field. The program should get better — getting rid of those repeated 5-7 seasons. Quickly the baseline for Northwestern is to make a bowl game. The Wildcats have already probably reached that level.

The question it feels facing the program is how it takes the next level and competes for a Big Ten title. How does the program become something more?

Everyone recognizes Northwestern is no longer a pushover. They are a team that will challenge every team in the conference for sure and be a threat to score a big bowl win. The Wildcats go into every game expecting to win. That is not something everyone could say when Pat Fitzgerald took over a decade ago.

That kind of progress should be celebrated. But it is not enough. The Wildcats now have to take that next step. They have to become true Big Ten threats.

That might be the tough thing to see this year with so many questions throughout the roster — at quarterback most of all, but even at running back as Jeremy Larkin takes over and in Northwestern’s usually strong secondary. The Wildcats will expect a bowl game again and to win that bowl game. How the program grows and what it does to surprise will be what everyone eagerly awaits.

At some point, Northwestern has to step off the wheel and make a run at the Big Ten title. It just might be a while for the pieces to align perfectly to do so.

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Big Ten West

Hunter Johnson Transfer: Seminal Moment of Fitzgerald Era

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A 5-Star Response in the B1G West Arms Race

It started mere days after Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes destroyed the inaugural B1G West Champion, 2014 Wisconsin Badgers, 59-0. A showing so strong and persuasive it vaulted Ohio State the necessary spot into the Playoff Committee’s top four. Meyer didn’t even need his first, or second, quarterback to emphatically slay the rest of the B1G. Legends and Leaders were gone, east coast neophytes Rutgers and Maryland were in. The B1G West certainly looked like the easier route to Indianapolis, but to what end? Humiliation on the grandest stage?

Gary Andersen had had enough. By the end of the month both a division champ and all powerful Michigan had brought in new head coaches. In the three years that have followed, turnover at the head coaching position has struck every B1G West school except Iowa and Northwestern. Each year the hottest non-Power 5 coach climbs the rung to a B1G West vacancy, bringing the hunger of their CFP snub with them. Among the two veteran HC’s, Kirk Ferentz has continued to catch lightning in a bottle and a BCS-turned-New-Years-Six Bowl every 6-8 years, which has left NU the lone man out. Having not reached the top of the mountain, but firmly and justifiably committed to Pat Fitzgerald at the helm. Nobody does more with less. But what if he had more? 2019 now appears to be the start of that exam.

In getting 2017 5-Star quarterback Hunter Johnson of Brownsburg, Indiana by way of Clemson, not only do the Cats get a talent coveted on a scale they rarely, if ever, have had before (see Kyle Prater in 2012; Cats fans hope Johnson yields more wins), but the timing and confluence of it all is enough to crack even the thickest of cynics’ skin. Despite the objective inequity of the NCAA rules that require an undergrad transfer such as Johnson to sit out a year (though not lose any eligibility), if Clayton Thorson is healthy and near-100% by September 29th, when conference-plus-Notre-Dame season starts in earnest, having both on the roster healthy would border on wasteful.

Whether or not the fact that Johnson’s eligibility will start just as Thorson’s ends was pure serendipity or a key part of his decision is unknown (though Thorson courted Johnson on a recent visit, so it appears to be a joint effort in furtherance of NU stability), but the outcome is the same. NU sits with two 10-win seasons in their last three, with a 7-win bowl campaign between them. If ever a time for a team leader who has experience playing for a College Football Playoff team, who joined the reigning national champs straight out of high school, to step in, see the differences between the elite level of Clemson and this fledgling B1G West contender, this is it. NU has never been closer.

Johnson knows he won’t be surrounded by the same caliber of playmakers he had at Clemson, but he chose to come to Evanston nevertheless. This could be seen as a sign of confidence that he doesn’t need Sammy Watkins or Mike Williams to move an offense down the field. In what now looks like a hint at what was to come, NU landed a commitment from 2019 3-star WR Bryce Kirtz who played with Johnson in high school as a sophomore. Johnson came to lead NU, not just chase playing time.

The decision should also be seen as a validation of the athletic department’s investment in elite facilities. NU set college sports social media abuzz when they unveiled the majestic new Ryan Fieldhouse right on the shores of Lake Michigan in April. If NU is to turn the corner and no longer be looking up at Wisconsin year-in year-out, the world-class facility will be seen as a turning point. NU has had academics, they’ve had location, and now they have a jewel that really strikes a chord with the athletes who will be spending more time there than anyone. Fitz has needed something to push the talent level up to a point where consistently threatening, and occasionally eclipsing, Wisconsin is a realistic expectation. The allure of Ryan Fieldhouse with big names backing it up right away, just might be what it took.

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Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats return to Wrigley Field a much different program

The Northwestern Wildcats’ first trip to Wrigley Field was the start of a marketing ploy. Their next trip in 2020 will be for a much bigger prize and with much higher stakes.

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Northwestern Wildcats, Wrigley Field

When the Northwestern Wildcats first came to Wrigley Field in 2010 to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini, they were a program looking for attention.

New athletic director Jim Phillips had boldly declared the Wildcats as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and this was their way to begin reaching out to their neighbors to the south.

Never mind that much of the stadium was orange and blue for the opponent. Never mind that luck did not favor Northwestern as Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles the week before, leaving the team to use a fresh starter in the game. Also never mind that Wrigley Field was not technically safe for football, forcing the teams to use only one end zone.

What seemed to matter more was that purple scoreboard behind the College GameDay crew for a battle of teams struggling to make a bowl game that year (they both did with Northwestern debuting Kain Colter in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech).

This was a publicity stunt — as all these novelty neutral site games are — but one with a specific purpose.

First to show the nation on College GameDay on the field that Northwestern football was no longer a pushover (that mission was not accomplished that Saturday afternoon). The second, to plant that literal flag in Chicago and build a relationship with the city and one of its most beloved sports icons.

Northwestern left the field that day maybe a bit premature to lay claim to the city. But the team and the program was always plotting a return for football (since then both baseball and lacrosse have played games on Wrigley Field).

The Wildcats a decade later are very different. A team that is more competitive and thinking of greater things. This is a program ready to stake claim to Chicago in a very real way.

Northwestern will get that opportunity, likely again in the spotlight, when the team takes on Wisconsin at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020.

That game figures to be a critical one in the Big Ten West between two fo the division’s most consistent teams. With teh spotlight on, Northwestern hopes this will be a marquee game and, of course, a victory that the program can hang its hat on while playing on a big stage.

Of course, 2020 is still very far away. The Wildcats and Badgers will recycle their rosters as every college team will.

By that point, Northwestern will be completely moved in to Ryan Fieldhouse for a few years. Recruits will have gone through that building and the team’s new training facilities not with hard hats on but with helmets on actually seeing the team practice in the lakeside facility.

Northwestern hopes this facility — the same one Yahoo! Sports called the best facility in college football — will tip the scales in recruiting. Northwestern has knocked on the door of competitiveness for several years with great recruiting. Now they hope they have a true advantage to push them over the edge.

The Wildcats have always had to create their own publicity. Students are not exactly passionate sports fans — although that part of campus culture has grown considerably in the last decade-plus. And the team does not have the huge alumni base. There will be a lot of red in Wrigley Field that Saturday afternoon.

The team though wants to use this stage it created to showcase itself all over again.

Back in 2010, the program was still experiencing sustained success for the first time. The Wildcats had not yet won a bowl game (not since 1949) and going to bowl games in consecutive years was novel. Winning the Big Ten West was a marketing scheme, not an achievable goal.

Chicago’s Big Ten Team was aspirational.

Now that has all changed. The facilities are in place. Northwestern has three bowl wins since 2012 and a few 10-win seasons to boot. The team has real championship aspirations almost every year. And that will be the case when they had to Wrigley.

As they step onto that historic field, Northwestern will truly be playing to become Chicago’s Big Ten Team. And a win on that day will catapult the program to new heights.

This trip will be a much bigger test for the program and potentially a whole lot more rewarding.

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