What’s your second-favorite Big Ten team? If you didn’t go to Northwestern and you aren’t a dick, chances are it’s the boys of Purple & White. Hell, even if you did go to Northwestern, the Wildcats likely top out at the number two spot.
And why shouldn’t they? If you’ve ever been to a Northwestern game, you know a fall Saturday at Ryan Field is as pleasant an afternoon as you could spend in the Big Ten.
Everything about Northwestern is agreeable. They’re the inoffensive, innocuous, plucky, proud-to-tell-you-that-they’re-nerds of the conference. The average Northwestern student is far more interested in top-flight journalism, performing arts, or the fundamental principles of business education than athletics. This makes their relative success this century so goshdarn swell.
Still basking in the long-awaited glory of their first NCAA Tournament, with 15 returning football starters and a real shot to win 10, 11, or dare we say even 12 games, Northwestern’s fans are as happy to be here as ever.
Among those returning starters is a backfield tandem that is the envy of every Big Ten team outside of Happy Valley and Columbus. With another average season, Justin Jackson will seize his place among the conference’s all-time greats. With another 3,000-yard season from Clayton Thorson and another defense in the top half of the conference, Northwestern, short of repeating the ‘95 team’s Rose Bowl berth, just may win the West.
Any fanbase of a historically middling program would be foaming at the mouth at this potential, while simultaneously shitting themselves with anxiety over the potential to blow it. Any other fanbase save Northwestern.
To be a Northwestern fan and experience football success is to feel joy unadulterated by expectation. There is no sense of should have or could have with Northwestern. There is only what is.
A loss doesn’t ruin a Northwestern fan’s day the way it does an Ohio or Michigan or Penn State fan’s. This is, in small part, arrogance — the luxury of being more concerned with things that matter. But mostly, it’s the childlike wonder that Northwestern fans — and Northwestern-Second fans — get from seeing Purple succeed.
It’s best exemplified by the recorded mechanical roar that plays over the Ryan Field PA system with each Northwestern achievement. The Ryan rooooooaaaaaarrrrrrr isn’t reserved for special occasions like touchdowns or field goals or turnovers. No. Northwestern plays that damn fatuous feral feline with each first down. And the crowd goes nuts. Well, as nuts as a Northwestern crowd that’s 40% opposing fans can get.
Given its proximity to the Midwest’s largest city, Northwestern games are the best chance a [insert other Big Ten school] ex-pat living in Chicago has to see their team. That doesn’t make the games feel sad or depressing for Northwestern fans. On the contrary, it adds to the exuberance of the crowd. Everyone is happy to be there. Everyone is excited to watch their team play. No one begrudges the Wildcats a win, or looks down on them for a loss. The weather is great, the food is fine, the games can be exciting, and before you know it, you’ve had one of your most enjoyable sports experiences in years.
So grab yourself a delightful souvenir cup, admire the Kain Colter, Mike Kafka, and Tyrell Sutton posters, keep an eye out for an Evan Eschmeyer sighting, and enjoy the Wildcats’ most outstanding season in 20 years. Or not.
Best Case Scenario
Northwestern, in the Wildcatbird seat with this schedule, mows down a favorable preconference slate featuring Nevada and Bowling Green at home and Duke on the road. Short of replacing Austin Carr, Clayton Thorson spreads the love among a bevy of wide receivers in Macan Wilson, Ben Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, and the cerebral Riley Lees, and the NW point machine is humming in time to face Penn State at home and Wisconsin on the road. Managing a split against those two, it powers through the rest of the Big Ten West behind Jackson’s legs — relieved capably by John Moten IV — and Clayton’s eyes and feet. The defense, bending considerably, never breaks, and Northwestern holds on to late leads against bad crossover opponents in Maryland and Michigan State. The Cats beat a good Iowa team as they yearly manage to do, and stun Nebraska on the road to complete the Huskers’ falling action. This team can’t win against the premier East contenders yet, but it could go 12-2 with a bowl victory and a Big Ten Title Game loss, and run a fake punt or two while doing it.
Worst Case Scenario
No team one year removed from losing at home to a 6-6 Illinois State FCS team is guaranteed a winning season. Northwestern continues its wonky, inexplicable preconference stumbles by losing at Duke, or to one of Nevada or Bowling Green at home. Entering the Penn State/Wisconsin dyad still looking for answers at receiver, Thorson is sacked 12 times in two ugly losses. A 2-3 Northwestern team zigzags between a win at Maryland, a loss to Iowa, a win against Sparty, and a loss to Nebraska, and even the most seasoned Northwestern fans note the turbulence. Going two for three against Purdue, Minnesota, and Illinois, the Cats reach a bowl and lose, finishing 6-7 and giving NW marketers an uphill battle in their effort to stage a Thorson Strong 2018 Heisman campaign.
Most Likely Case Scenario
Getting past the preconference action without error, the Cats drop both conference games to Wisconsin and Penn State. They rally with a win at Maryland, but don’t make it through the rest of conference action without two more (close) conference losses, notching another 5-4 Big Ten record. In a win over Minnesota, Justin Jackson cracks the top five conference rushers of all time, and so does the broadcaster’s voice — they went to Northwestern, too. The team doesn’t lose from November on, going 9-4 with a bowl victory, and Jackson and Thorson rival Zak Kustok and Damien Anderson as one of the greatest backfield tandems in school history.
Did You Know?
Guy Fieri cooked tandoori-style chicken at a Northwestern-Michigan pregame tailgate a couple years back. It ruled.
As a sophomore, Clayton Thorson came from seemingly nowhere to finish as a top three fantasy QB. Losing 2016 Surprise Fantasy Player-of-the-Year Austin Carr hurts, but coming into last season, Northwestern’s receiver cupboard seemed just as bare. Carr’s success last year was as much a function of Thorson’s emergence as it was vice versa. Look for Thorson to show the league that 3,200 yards and 22 touchdowns were no flash in the pan. After Thorson, Matt Alviti is an experienced backup and more of a running threat, but not much of a fantasy prospect barring an injury to Thor.
In his fourth year starting at running back, Justin Jackson may seal his place as one of the greatest backs in all of Big Ten history, meaning he’s also had one of the great fantasy careers ever. Another average season from Jackson makes him first round no matter what. John Moten IV will get the backup carries.
Oregon grad transfer Jalen Brown, a decorated recruit and decent contributor, will push for a starting spot, but he arrived on campus at a severe disadvantage, having practiced against a Brady Hoke defense all last year. Flynn Nagel is the natural choice to fill Carr’s savvy slot route running, and should increase his production considerably. Macan Wilson and Ben Skowronek just sound like Northwestern receivers, and there’s been good practice buzz on Charlie Fessler and Riley Lees. If you’re digging this deeply into the Wildcats wideouts, you’re probably doing this wrong, but do remember that Austin Carr was a 10th round pick. Anything is possible.
Garrett Dickerson, the Dan Vitale Memorial Superback, is on the All-Getting-Off-The-Bus First Team. He’s definitely draftable.
The Northwestern defense is an adequately oiled machine. They won’t lose you a fantasy matchup, and probably won’t win one. Northwestern’s defense is like the friend you’ve known for years and never been into, but suddenly, staring into the void of middle age alone, you panic and hook up, maybe getting hitched. When the fifth and sixth rounds come along and the good defenses are off the board, relax and cuddle up to the warm, familiar comfort of a dependable Northwestern defense.
NW’s road win against Iowa
Justin Jackson highlight reel
1995 Fox 32 feature on an injured Pat Fitzgerald