Purple Positive #21: The Nebraska night game
As Northwestern fans we’re a bit self-conscious of other fan’s opinions. Forever the perennial underrated underdog, we long for respect among college football’s elite, even though we’ve only established ourselves as a very respectable program during the Pat Fitzgerald era. If you want to look for brand advocates of Northwestern outside of the NU family talk to a Cornhusker fan.
Northwestern’s three game history with Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference has been nothing short of breathtaking. In 2011 an NU team whose season was on the ropes went in to Lincoln and upset the then #8 Huskers with an incredible game-winning TD drive that featured 11 straight running plays to seal the deal. In 2012, Northwestern hosted the Sea of Red and saw a 21-10 third quarter lead evaporate and Jeff Budzien missed a 53-yard FG attempt in the final minute – by inches – as Nebraska escaped Ryan Field. Then of course there was last year. The ‘Cats had seemingly ended their nightmarish 0-4 B1G start as Nebraska was down 24-21 with a few ticks left when one of the most painful finishes in Northwestern history occurred (and that is saying quite a bit). I don’t need to describe the Westerkamp Hail Mary catch because it is seared in all of our minds. The Huskers are 2-1 against NU in the brief but brilliant three game B1G history, but even the most biased UNL (yes that will be done intentionally all year long) fan will admit to you they are lucky they’re not 0-3 against us.
That brings us to Saturday, October 18 at Ryan Field. What could possibly happen for the encore in this series? BTN grabbed this one for a primetime night game (7:30 pm et/6:30 pm ct) which will only elevate the buzz and anticipation between these two programs. It is a circle the date kind of night in the season and with karma due to bounce back our way, the reason I’ve chosen “the Nebraska Night Game” as Purple Positive #21 for the 2014 season.
You might think I’m doubling up on the themes early in this countdown. Just last week we featured the “Home Schedule Sizzle” as #24. I think you’ll agree that the Nebraska game, until proven otherwise, deserves its own special treatment.
I’ll be the first to admit I never saw a potential Northwestern-Nebraska “rivalry” being formed. Three games certainly doesn’t make a rivalry, but I challenge you to find a more thrilling series anywhere in the country over the past three consecutive seasons. You won’t.
Nebraska and Northwestern seemed to be oddly connected in ways that most fans would never think of at first. Nebraska fans are famously hospitable always applauding opposing teams in a one-of-a-kind tradition. Husker Nation embraces academic excellence with the same vigor Northwestern fans do. Thanks to Tom Osborne’s leadership, the Huskers put their Academic All-Americans on the highest pedestal in Memorial Stadium. The Huskers actually lead all of Division I in this category with 314 CoSIDA/Capital One All-Americans.
Then there is the whole abbreviation thing. Northwestern fans are still a bit touch about the way we are abbreviated by television outlets (ESPN uses everything from NW to N’Westrn) considering the school, its fans and even the fight song have forever used “NU” a the official abbreviation. We’ve come to learn in our Husker indoctrination that they also use NU despite the fact they’ll readily admit they are the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL as we like to say). Most other B1G fans don’t even register this fan sparring on their radar screen and why should they? For the most part, this burgeoning rivalry is irrelevant on the national landscape, but it is becoming more relevant in the B1G.
The recent B1G division realignment should only supercharge this series. Nebraska and Northwestern are of course both in the West Division and are assured of playing every single season. Certainly from a geographical and historical standpoint, Nebraska has other more logical rivals like border war candidate Iowa or from a most likely to be contending for a division crown aspect – Wisconsin. However, the on-field drama that has unfolded over the past three seasons between NU and UNL is enough for us to already be white-knuckling what the heck will happen on October 18.
It’s reasonable to think Nebraska will be a 5-1 ranked team (high teens?) when they arrive in Evanston after earning a bye after a key early season cross-over game with Michigan State. Sure, Fresno State lurks as a challenging non-conference game as does a renewal with Miami, but I’m betting they’ll emerge with one loss at most. For Northwestern – who knows? I’d like to think we’ll be 3-0 non-conference and I’d be thrilled if we somehow entered the game 2-1 in conference (@Penn State, Wisconsin, @Minnesota), but that might be wishful thinking. I really wish this game was on ESPN to get the full effect of the national buzz, but that’s what happens when you go 5-7 the previous season. This game will have no shortage of star power, however.
The Huskers’ Ameer Abdullah is an outside contender for Heisman consideration by some experts. Abdullah, the star senior RB, is coming off of back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons highlighted by his 1,690 yard season in 2013. However, potential top 5 2015 NFL Draft pick DE Randy Gregory is the one to watch in this game. The JUCO transfer lit up the stat sheet and intoxicated Huskers fans with his 9.5 sack season in 2013. The guy is a DC’s nightmare and you can bet should both be healthy come mid-October the Gregory vs Siemian match-up (or rather the OL) will be a make-or-break battle to watch.
There is something special about night games at Ryan Field. Granted, Northwestern doesn’t seem to win any of them (conference games that is), but nonetheless the atmosphere feels B1G time. Perhaps its the way the uniforms sparkle under the lights or the fact that fans have had all day to tailgate in anticipation of kickoff, but more likely its the packed house factor, which again, we’re working on to be OUR house and not a 50/50 neutral site feel.
This game matters big time as you know it will be the one stock full of recruits. Fitz is a master at managing to leverage big home dates for recruiting purposes. With the new policy of moving the marching band and student section to the east side (along with many of the fans, including my entourage) it should drastically help the optics. However, nothing moves the needle like a home win in circumstances like this.
This game has featured a little bit of everything in its three year history. The Jeremy Ebert slant, Kain’s superman performance and dive for the pylon and a fifth string RB helping to seal a win in 2011. In 2012 there was Venric’s 80-yard TD, Bo Pelini’s daring of NU to beat the Huskers through the air (and Tony Jones finally doing it) and the turn-on-the-dime momentum following Nick VanHoose’s injury. In 2013 there was NU’s inability to cash red zone opps in to TD’s and of course the never to be forgotten cardinal sin of not being “deeper than the deepest” on the Hail Mary. What will 2014 bring? I’m here to be optimistic and say “a win”.
Nebraska’s name may not have the cache it did in the 1990’s but don’t kid yourself. This is a huge one for Wildcat fans and is one of those national perception maker type games (along with Wisconsin and Michigan). We’ve gone 0-4 in the past two seasons against Nebraska and Michigan with each one of those coming down to the final play. It’s time we make our own lucky break and get this series back even in B1G play. I’ve got October 18 circled as a piece of Purple Positive. What do you think?
Now is a good time to remind you that the deadline for single game tickets for season ticket holders is tomorrow! Help keep Ryan Field purple against the Sea of Red by calling 888-Go-Purple or your ticket manager to gobble up as many tickets as you can for this game and keeping them in the hands of NU (not UNL!) fans!
Coming up tomorrow…
We check in with #20 which has nothing to do with any current player, but is a move that could have a dramatic impact on 2015 recruits. At least the ones that follow us on TV.
Purple Positive Top 25 Countdown Links