Ryan Field will host its highest capacity non-conference game in a long time on Saturday. This was the expectation when the two schools announced the game last September. When NIU last came to Evanston in 2005, the crowd was announced at 35,114, an increase of 15,000 from the previous week's season opener crowd of 20,115 against Ohio.
As of 9 a.m. on September 5, the online ticket system shows around 4,300 unsold tickets to Saturday's game. Ryan Field capacity is 47,300, so Northwestern appears to be in line for a crowd north of 43,000. Given the favorable weather forecast and both declining volume and rising prices on StubHub (many listings have expired due to UPS shipping cutoffs), there should be a fair number of walk-up sales, as well.
Northwestern should average around 37,000 for its three non-conference games this year, a significant increase to its non-conference average of 34,629 for 2013. Against Cal, NU drew 34,228. For last year's non-conference games, NU had 38,033 against Syracuse, 33,128 against Western Michigan, and 32,726 against Maine. With official sellouts very likely for Nebraska and Michigan, as well as a strong crowd for Wisconsin, Northwestern has a legitimate shot of averaging 40,000 for the season, something that hasn't happened since 1998.
There are fewer than 200 seats available in the end zone and fewer than 100 in the visitor's allotment. Close to 2,000 of the available seats are in the 200 level on the west side. The east side, north of the student section, is near capacity with only about 435 available in section 102 and 240 in section 104.
There are several things worth pointing out. First, NU has not opened up section 101. Last week, both 101 and 102 were never put on sale and remained tarped off. There are also no general public tickets available for sections 111-113. Those sections, along with 114, comprise the new student section, but only 111 and 112 were reserved for students last week while sections 113 and 114 were sold to the general public. Section 111 was roughly half full with students and there did not appear to be any students behind the band in section 112. Tomorrow is also High School Band Day at Ryan Field. With the new arrangement, it's hard to say where the bands will sit. Typically there are about 1,000 performers, but bands take up more space and they are often split up throughout the stadium. My guess is that 101 will be a section for some of the bands, while others will sit behind NUMB in 112 and more in 113.
I'm not sure when the last time Ryan Field saw a crowd this big for a non-conference game. My educated guess is that it never has, at least not under the current. According to HailToPurple.com, Dyche Stadium last had a sellout against a non-conference opponent in 1974 against Notre Dame, a game which drew an official sellout crowd of between 50,290 and 55,000. In 1962, NU beat Notre Dame in front of an on-campus record sellout of 55,752.
If Northwestern wins on Saturday, and that seems to be turning into a bigger "if," it will have been a very smart move by Jim Phillips. The administration knew they'd be facing an NIU team with a new QB and, as the season turned out last year, a bad defense. But given the offense's struggles, I'm far less confident heading into the game. A loss would be rather crushing to the season and embarrassing locally. Despite all of the injuries and bad luck last year, the two teams were quite even overall statistically. Losing to NIU at home this year with a veteran team after they lost their Heisman contender would not go over well. If Northwestern wins, however, the administration will feel a lot better about the money they'll have made from Saturday's game.