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Northwestern Wildcats Spring Football 2017 Preview: Building the base

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Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Western Michigan Broncos

The Northwestern Wildcats enter the 2017 season with a lot of expectation to match last year’s bowl win and establish a firmer base to grow and compete.

Northwestern football treasures its successes.

Fans speak reverently of the 1995 Rose Bowl team and the 1996 Citrus Bowl team that followed. And of course, they speak reverently of the team’s current coach and star linebacker of those teams in Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald has cemented his legacy, not only as Northwestern’s greatest linebacker perhaps but also as the team’s all-time winningest coach. He has brought Northwestern to unforeseen levels. The school is nearly finished with its on-campus practice facility. Things are looking up for Northwestern.

The question with the Wildcats is always going from one success to the next.

When Northwestern won the Gator Bowl in 2012 and had many of their key players returning with the attendant hype, the team fell flat. The Wildcats lost that big game against the Buckeyes and could not recover, winning just twice in the Big Ten, missing out on a bowl game altogether. After winning 10 games in 2015, the Wildcats lost their first two games to Western Michigan and Illinois State, struggling to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.

That proved worth it as the Wildcats defeated Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. That provided a ton of optimism for what will come in 2017. But the Wildcats still have to match their success. And that has been the problem.

Will Northwestern build some momentum from last season’s bowl win into a stronger season this year? Can the Wildcats compete for a Big Ten West title and take a step forward to consistency?

By all accounts, Northwestern will have the skill players to do it. Clayton Thorson had a breakout sophomore season, turning former walk-on Austin Carr into a star. Justin Jackson is back after three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And the defense is still loaded with talent despite losing Anthony Walker to the draft, the first Northwestern underclassmen to declare for the draft since 1996.

There is a lot to get excited about when it comes to Northwestern. And a lot of hope the team can build on its foundation from last year.

The question is whether Northwestern can finally string successful seasons together again.

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Spring Football Starting Date: Feb. 21
Spring Football “Game”: April 2 (it is an open practice and not a formal game)

Key Returning Players: QB Clayton Thorson; RB Justin Jackson; WR Solomon Vault; S Godwin Igwebuike; LB Nate Hall; S Kyle Queiro
Key Losses: LB Anthony Walker, Jr.; DE Ifeadi Odenigbo; CB Matthew Harris; WR Austin Carr; WR Andrew Scanlan; G Conner Mahoney

Offensive To-Do List

Sort out the wide receivers: Clayton Thorson was a bit of an offensive revelation last year, suddenly becoming one of the Big Ten’s top passers. A lot of those yards went to Biletnikoff Award Finalist Austin Carr and to bruising wide receiver Andrew Scanlan. Both seniors are now gone and the Wildcats have to find someone to step up in the receiving corps. Converted running back Solomon Vault will play a role. As will the speedy Flynn Nagel. But Northwestern’s offense needs that grinder in the slot to keep possession over the middle. The Wildcats have to find someone to step into that role, whether it is superback Garrett Dickerson or someone else.

Shore up the offensive line: While Northwestern did a good job running the ball and passing it at times, the offensive line had its share of struggles. The offensive line did not perform well, according to Football Outsiders, ranking 68th in adjusted Line Yards (essentially a measure of whether the offensive line controls the three yards from the line of scrimmage) and 102nd in standard down yard lines (essentially how well the offensive line kept teams ahead of the chains). Northwestern had to dig itself out of some holes. And when the Wildcats struggled, they struggled because the offensive line did not give Thorson time to throw.

–Get Justin Jackson some rest: Justin Jackson is a workhorse. He averaged 22.9 carries per game for the Wildcats last year. It is not that Jackson cannot carry that load. He is more than capable of doing so. But there is always the injury risk that seems around the corner. Northwestern would like to lighten his load so he can bruise defenses later in games. The Wildcats thought they had a solid cadre of backs last year until Warren Long broke his hand in the second game of the season. Long is now converted to linebacker thanks to the emergence of youngster John Moten IV. Another running back, Solomon Vault, is now a wide receiver. That leaves Auston Anderson and Moten to take the mantle behind Jackson. Both had flashes of brilliance last year, but someone needs to help lighten Jackson’s load.

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Defensive To-Do List

–Find a leader: Northwestern honors its hardest working player with the No. 1 jersey every year. It usually goes to a walk on or hard-working scraper who plays only special teams. Last year it went to Northwestern’s best player — Anthony Walker. That was a deeply symbolic gesture and showed just how much Walker’s presence meant to the team. He did save several plays and games by his sheer effort. That is going to be tough to replace. Northwestern will need to find leadership on defense to replace that hole, specifically at linebacker. The Wildcats should turn to Godwin Igwebuike in the secondary.

–Replace the pass rush: Northwestern got a surprise boost on its pass rush from Ifeadi Odenigbo’s sudden emergence as a sack-producing fiend. The Wildcats always knew he had that kind of potential, it just never materialized. His three-game run to start Big Ten season was as strong as anything Northwestern has seen. But the Wildcats’ pass rush generally struggled out side of that. Northwestern’s pressure was inconsistent. And the Wildcats will need to get a better pass rush this year. Look for Xavier Washington to step into that role. He has been quiet since a breakout performance against Penn State two years ago.

–Stay healthy in the secondary: More than anything else, Northwestern has struggled to stay healthy on defense. The team has a ton of talent, but something always hits it hard. And the Wildcats are not exactly the deepest team in the country. Last year, injuries hit the team hard. Getting a healthy spring would be a good start to building cohesion to have another stellar defensive season. Last year, Keith Watkins, Kyle Queiro and Matthew Harris all missed time. That gave a lot of players in the secondary some valuable experience like Trae Williams and Montrage Hartage. If everyone stays healthy, this secondary could be a special group.

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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