Biggest. Game. Since?
The Ohio State blog requests for Northwestern interviews have been pouring in this week and almost all of them contain some element of the phrase “biggest game ever”. At the risk of sounding like the curmudgeon I never wanted to become, I’ve been invoking a Lee Corso-ism of “not so fast”. However, answering the open-ended question of “biggest game since…?” definitely got me thinking about this week.
The media frenzy in Evanston is actually unprecedented from a scale, size and scope factor. Yes, ESPN GameDay has been to Evanston once before, but I was there and it was a mingling of people watching Chris Fowler and Lee Corso at a desk in the lobby of Welsh-Ryan Arena (photos anyone?). This week ESPN will transform the Northwestern lakefill in to a gigantic set that hopefully (please tell me we won’t be embarassed by the background turnout) will showcase the Chicago skyline, the beautiful campus and the passion of the students. The ESPN radio program, Mike & Mike will be overtaking Deering Meadow on Friday for a live telecast on ESPN2. Plus the onslaught of national media descending upon Evanston is 1995-like. In terms of regular season game week coverage, there hasn’t been anything like this since the Penn State game in 1995 or the week before the Miami (OH) game after we upset Notre Dame in 1995 (note: to you younger readers, Notre Dame used to be this big time program that was a perennial top five team and it was a big deal to beat them).
Hindsight is, well, you know what it is, but when it comes to “biggest game since…?” you have to go to AFTER a game to find the national relevance we’re talking about this week. I can honestly say this is the most hyped regular season week since I’ve been following Northwestern (22 years). The lead-up to the Rose Bowl, after Michigan upset Ohio State to clinch that magical trip to Pasadena, is the only thing that comes close. That month long media ride blows this away, but you only go from the least successful program historically to Big Ten champs out of nowhere, once in a lifetime.
There was definitely some buzz for the Michigan game in 2000, but nothing, and I mean nothing, like this. In retrospect, the 2000 54-51 win was the “biggest game since”. That game changed not only perceptions of NU, but catapulted the use of the spread offense. The most hyped home game I can remember is Penn State in 1995. I remember being at lunch with buddies in my senior year (1995), the spring before the fall that changed everything. We made a bucket list of Northwestern football-related things that we said would be the pinnacle of success. It was comical at the time, but it included things like:
- A sold out Dyche Stadium (ANY sellout)
- Keith Jackson calling a game at Dyche Stadium (the equivalent then of Brent/Kirk on ABC in primetime now)
- Being ranked in the Top 25
- A winning season in the Big Ten
- Being ranked higher than Nebraska, Florida, Florida State or Ohio State
- Rose Bowl
I wish we had written it down, because the list was long and fanciful. The 1995 season checked off every single one of our bucket list items. We were 22 and left to think “now what?”. Well, THIS is what. A consistent program that can be ranked week after week (we’ve got a long way to go) and compete every year for the division championship. Those of us that square away rationale thoughts on this know that this game is technically less important than Nebraska, Michigan or even Iowa as it relates to getting to the Big Ten Championship. We could lose the next two weeks, end up 6-2 in the conference and we’d be going to Indy to face Ohio State once again. But, when it comes to changing perception, this is an opportunity we simply haven’t had in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
Ohio State is the brand ambassador for the Big Ten. It’s tough to argue that brand is down right now when you watch the SEC or even the Pac-12 play. The Buckeyes appear to the average college football fan as the de facto annual champion as Wisconsin gets overlooked on the national stage. Forget about the “O” in “O-H-I-O”. The Buckeyes put the “O” in Goliath. Just look at the historical comparisons between any category between Ohio State and Northwestern. National titles, weeks ranked, Heisman Trophy winners, NFL Draft picks – you pick it. This is from a very fun and addicting site called Winsipedia (Ohio State is in scarlet, Northwestern in white). The numbers represent FBS national rank among all teams.
The stats don’t even begin to tell the story of Ohio State’s all-time dominance over the Wildcats, which stands at 59-14-1. Our last victory over OSU, an OT thriller in 2004, ended a 24 game losing streak dating back to 1972. We haven’t won in Columbus since 1971. Need I go on?
This game on this night is as big as it gets for a host of other reasons besides overall record. We fantasized all off-season about a potential #1 Ohio State coming to Evanston to face a top-15 NU squad which we felt would bring ESPN GameDay and an ABC primetime. The older-ish NU fans are nervous. Very nervous. It seems the brighter the lights, the bigger the disappointment (literally, our night game play in conference has been very poor). Yes, that squeamish “what if we get blownout?” question lingers in the background, knowing that a decisive Ohio State wins reinforces the fact that NU isn’t at that next level. And this “next level” is what this game means for this program.
The recent mindset of an NU fan is one that erases any fear of being blownout. Ever. Modern ‘Cats fans enter every single game knowing we have a legitimate shot to win the game, and more often than not are favored to do so. Biggest game ever? Nah, Ara Parseghian beating ND in back-to-back seasons, NU beating #1 Miami in the late 60s and the generation turning win over ND in 1995 all would beg to differ. However, with the modern media landscape clamoring for so much mindshare of the sports fan, this primetime game on a pedestal is the kind of game that sticks in media perception shapers minds’ for years to come. Then, there are the recruits. NU has turned the corner in recruiting and now goes head to head with Top 25 programs – and wins – regularly. This would be a shot of Venric Mark to the 2015 class and put us in a whole new class.
Recruiting, season ticket sales, bowl game perception – all of it comes in to play in this game. It’s big. It’s huge. And man, can I not wait until Saturday.
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