I have been surprised by the lack of buzz among Northwestern fans about the Notre Dame game.
Do not misunderstand me, I have had plenty of people contact me about going and I know many fans who have already locked in the date for a no-brainer road trip in November, but the game surely is not in the top five things people are talking about for this season. Perhaps that is a good thing.
There is no denying that Notre Dame has lost some of its brand star power since we last faced them on September 2, 1995. Wildcat fans revere that game as it has become the marker as the birth of modern day Northwestern football. Since that game, and that now-fabled 1995 season, the Wildcats have become a respectable program.
The current Northwestern college student and even 30-year-old or under, knows only of the Cats as a team that is an annual bowl contender. Conversely, Notre Dame has slipped from a team that was in the annual team photo of national title contenders, to a respectable team that expects to be bowl bound every season. There is a bit of irony in our Gator Bowl win, as it has locked us in a tie (as opposed to owning the record) for longest bowl losing streak (nine games) with Notre Dame.
I spend an overabundance of time talking about brand perception for Northwestern. It tends to be most relevant for older, casual college football fans. A win over an average Michigan program simply still counts moreso than a big win over a highly ranked Iowa or Minnesota team. It is just the way the world still works.
So, the non-conference tilt in South Bend on November 15 presents another brand-building opportunity. We have come a long way since 1995, but still have a long way to go.
Part of the old-timer (I am classifying those of us that are on the plus side of 40) Wildcat contingent is looking at this game with trepidation. Simply put, we have had 20-year bragging rights with any Domer fan and they know it. Notre Dame fans do not bring up football superiority over NU in conversation any more.
A loss on November 15 and our bragging rights go – POOF!
It goes deeper than that for longtime Northwestern fans. That game, the incredible upset over a national championship contender and 27 and 1/2 point favorite means so much to the program. We as fans half-jokingly use September 2, 1995 as the starting point in measuring just about anything if we want the stats to be favorable to our Cats. It meant SO much to our program to get that win on that day against that team to really turn things around.
Now, 20 years later, both programs have moved toward one another from opposite extremes that a win in South Bend would hardly be a shock. It is a good thing and shows just how far we have come and perhaps how much Notre Dame has been passed by a significant portion of the big brand football pack.
During the past 20 years Northwestern has done wonders to its football reputation, but the next step for this program is to become a perennial Top 25 team (as opposed to the somewhat occasional Top 25 team) that makes it to the B1G title game once every few years.
Newsflash — we are not there yet.
Despite the lack of buzz for this game at this point in time (remember how long ago it was that Mike & Mike sported the Northwestern and Notre Dame gear to announce this game?), I am chalking it up as a top five Purple Positive for several reasons.
First, I believe it will be a great game.
If both teams stay healthy, you would expect the Irish to be favored in this game by a low single digit number. Jim Phillips and Fitz catch some flack for scheduling a tough out of conference slate, but as a fan, I love it.
Second, it is another national stage to make a statement. Sure, NBC is not what it was 20 years ago, but ratings for a Saturday afternoon game against Notre Dame still dwarf what NU earns on BTN. It is a chance, should NU be enjoying a very good season to make it a great season.
Third, I think we are going to win this game.
I have got that rare feeling that an anxious, paranoid diehard fan rarely has. There is just that intangible hovering that makes me excited for this mid-November tilt.
Fourth, I think it is a significant recruiting game. The Cats continue to compete more and more against the Fighting Irish for players and nothing helps close call situations like taking care of business on the field.
We will get in to the personnel match-ups at a later date. For now, I keep staring at where this game falls in the schedule. There is not one single Big Ten game that precedes it (at Penn State, vs. Wisconsin, at Minnesota, vs. Nebraska, at Iowa, vs. Michigan) that you look at as a Wildcat win and say “that is a sure win”.
Should things go south like ’13, this game has a different look to it. Conversely, should we do some damage and win two out of three against Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan — admittedly a tough task — this game could catapult us toward some serious end of season momentum against Purdue and Illinois.
I am going with the positive and thinking a win at Notre Dame could provide the potential cut and paste recap line for sports journalists across the country regarding the Northwestern brand perception.
“A team that beat Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Notre Dame, Fitzgerald has rebounded in a major way and Northwestern is a force to be reckoned with.”