I found another Big Ten alum to talk a little football with this week. My colleague Mackenzie Warren answered some questions about Penn State’s opponent, Northwestern. Here we go:
WFY: Northwestern is a surprising 2-4, what in the name of Steve Schnur is going on this season? What happened to Persastrong?
MW: This is a good example of misplaced focus. Instead of creating a Heisman Trophy PR campaign for a guy who wasn’t even ready to play until the fourth week, we should have been focused on building competence in the fundamentals of football. Northwestern is not a national-stage program, and it doesn’t have national-caliber talent. It’s always succeeded by outperforming expectations. The last thing we need to do is over-promise and under-deliver. If this Persastrong thing was intended to show recruits that we’ll help you build a pro career, it was a big miss. NU has three guys a year or so who go to the NFL and many have productive careers. We should let that record speak for itself.
WFY: What are the Wildcats strengths and weaknesses this season? How can they beat Penn State? Is Dan Persa going to be able to play the whole game?
MW: One must consider two different questions: Can Persa play the whole game, and will he? I think he can, but won’t. We’re moving toward a platoon at QB as the sophomore Kain Colter shows himself to be both mobile out of the pocket and a pretty good decision-maker as a passer.
If NU beats Penn State, it will be by outscoring them in a shootout. We are giving up more than 40 points a game in Big Ten (12) action, so I reckon we’re going to need to score at least 41.
WFY: What is the game day experience at Ryan Field like? How was the game at Wrigley Field last year?
MW: I have been to many college football games around the country, so I have some context to answer this. I think the Ryan Field (neé Dyche Stadium) experience is unique in one way: Football is not necessarily the main attraction. Traditionally the team has been lousy (though resurgent over the last 16 years.) As such, it’s not a rowdy, beer-soaked orgy. It’s a chance to get some sun and relax on a nice fall day. I won’t go so far as to say people do their homework in the stands, but they are comfortable talking about intellectual things as the game is going on. This is especially true during early-season game against MAC opponents, when all the games are at 11 am and school is barely in session (the Fall Quarter doesn’t start until week 3 of football.)
As the school year progresses, the stakes get higher in the Big Ten season, the team gains momentum and the games shift to the afternoon or night, the focus turns more toward football. During the years when we are middling-to-better-than-middling (these last few years of 8-4, 7-5 are examples) there is a slow burn leading up to the inevitable upset of some ranked team, followed by our own loss as soon as we are ranked. In the more special seasons (9-3 a few times), when we contend for the Big Ten title, the campus temporarily coalesces single-mindedly on the team, until we lose and then everyone goes back to studying for midterms and finals, or to application for graduate school.
Since our stadium is located several miles north of campus, one of the favorite activities is the walk up to and back from Dyche Stadium (those who wen to school there before the name change fastidiously refer to it by its maiden name) was a highlight. The leafy neighborhoods of Evanston are idyllic, filled with the well-kept lawns and sprawling homes of the North Shore elite, including the erudite professors of Alma Mater. It gives a person something to aspire to with this big expensive degree. Also along the route is an old golf course that was in place before all the modern infrastructure like train tracks and roads were established. So golfers have to hit shots over streets and El tracks. On Saturdays, they also have to dodge the student body, which likes to march up the fifth fairway as a cut-through behind Evanston Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
I went to the Wrigley Field game last year and can say the hype way exceeded the experience. This could be that we got creamed. But also I think Wrigley Field for the Cubs is like it was for the Cats: More the center of attention than the game itself. In our case last year, that was for the best.
WFY: Did the rise of the Wildcats in 1995 have any influence on you decision to attend Northwestern?
MW: Yes it did. I likely would have gone there anyway, since I applied early and thus it was the only school I applied to at all. But during my campus visit in the fall, before applying, I went to a home game when we beat Wisconsin 42-0. The place went wild at Dyche, and then back to its business of studying and learning. It really got my excitement up high and helped push me toward doing the early application. I was accepted to the school in mid-December, which meant my first Cats game was the Rose Bowl game against USC. Though we lost narrowly, my passion was ignited.
Incidentally, when my brother was choosing schools in 1991, a similar thing happened. He’d been accepted at a number of places and was down to three: Brown, Virginia and Duke. We went to the Final Four in Indianapolis that year, right before he had to make his decision. When Bobby Hurley sent that iconic half-court alley-oop to Grant Hill, who famously dunked it one-handed after catching it about three feet above the rim, he turned to my parents and declared he was going to Duke. Sports have an ability to focus us on the out-of-classroom experiences we want in our college.
WFY: Is Northwestern football a bigger deal now than when you were a student?
MW: I think it’s slightly less a big deal, because our mild success isn’t new any longer and it’s just mild. When I was there, the success was both new and staggeringly great, so I think it was a bigger deal then.
WFY: Is Northwestern “Chicago’s college football team” like they claim?
MW: Actually the claim is that they are Chicago’s Big Ten team. Of course, it’s an absurd claim. Nobody in Chicago wakes up on Saturdays with butterflies in their stomach about the big NU game in Evanston. Many of the sellouts at Dyche are sellouts only because the other team (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Illinois for sure) have so many alumni in Chicago, and this is their one chance to see in person their team play. So perhaps a more accurate motto would be “Chicago’s home for Big Ten football.”
WFY: Is Pat Fitzgerald a lifer as Northwestern head coach?
MW: This is a great question. He has the heart of a Wildcat. He truly loves it there. He’s being given all the money for himself that he needs. His wife and kids are happy there. He is fully in charge. But as reality sets in for him that recruiting great talent in there is a hard sell, he may become increasingly frustrated. He could have had the Norte Dame job and possibly the Michigan or Stanford jobs, and the fact that he walked away from those says a lot. My money is he’s there for a long time, but never builds a national contender. If he wins one Big Ten Legends title, that’ would be good. If he wins one conference title game and goes to the BCS, that would be great. And I mean over the course of a whole career, one or the other would be a lot to expect.
WFY: What is the typical Northwestern view of the Penn State football program?
MW: I don’t think we fear or respect them the way we do Michigan and Ohio State. We’re actually the only school ever to beat Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame in the same year. We have won five or six times in the last 15 years (Editors note: actually 3). So to us this often appears on the schedule as a game we could steal. Sometimes, like last year, we find out otherwise in an most unpleasant way.
WFY: Predictions? Final score, etc.
MW: PSU 42, NU 24., and not just because I like palindromes. I think Penn State is just south of being twice as good as we are.
WFY: As I mentioned in Blue White Roundtable, 27-19, Penn State.