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A beginner’s guide to Northwestern football: 2019 edition

Hey class of 2023, transfers, and new grad students! We put together a comprehensive look at the basics of the program.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern students trickling back to campus for the start of the 2019-20 school year and freshmen in the midst of Wildcat Welcome orientation week, Inside NU would like to extend our welcome to the entire student community.

We know that not everyone on this campus cares about Northwestern sports and especially football as much as we do, but for those of you who do, we have you covered. Some of you may follow the team religiously while others might only pop in for a few quarters throughout the season, but we’re writing this guide so everyone can brush up on their NU football knowledge heading into the season.

How good is the team right now?

If you’re a new Northwestern student, you’re entering the university during arguably the best stretch of football success it has ever seen. The team just graduated its winningest class in program history last year, and is coming off arguably its best season since the turn of the century. In 2018, the Wildcats went 8-1 in Big Ten play and reached the conference championship game for the first time. NU closed the season with an epic comeback victory over Utah in the Holiday Bowl to win its third bowl game in as many years.

Through two games this season, Northwestern is 1-1 with a loss to Stanford and a win against UNLV. It’s been a little bit of a sour start to the season given how poorly the team played against the Cardinal, but overall, 1-1 is the record most expected from NU after two games. This weekend’s conference opener against Michigan State is when the games really start to matter.

Things don’t always make sense

Rarely does Northwestern football seem to operate fully within the bounds of reality. Sometimes, the team can pull off wins that nobody sees coming — hello, Notre Dame. The team made a habit of this in the early 2000s, gaining the nickname of Cardiac ‘Cats. But sometimes, the ‘Cats can lose super weird games to bad teams — see Northwestern-Akron 2018, Northwestern-Illinois State 2016 and plenty more.

Last year, in its improbable run to the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern won its division the same day it gained bowl eligibility thanks to a winless non-conference slate, a very rare happening. The Wildcats nearly lost to 1-11 Rutgers (more on them in other posts), and then went on to beat three top 20-ranked teams. Expect plenty more of that to come.

The schedule

Students will have plenty of chances to see the Wildcats in action this year. Northwestern has six remaining home games on its schedule including this weekend, and students have mouthwatering matchups to look forward to as Ohio State and Iowa come to Evanston later in the fall. And if you’re feeling prepared to battle the cold, the Wildcats have three straight home games in November for which students can bundle up.

Ryan Field

This is where the magic happens. Ryan Field, located about a 20-25 minute walk away from North Campus, has a cozy feeling. And don’t worry about that walk; there are gameday shuttles that take students from campus to the stadium and vice-versa from well before the game until well after it ends. There are no bad seats in the Big Ten’s smallest stadium (capacity-wise), which means you can stroll in late after a Saturday brunch or tailgate and still be able to see plenty of action.

If you get to the game early, you can almost assuredly sit near the front row, which means your chances of getting on TV are pretty high. The food isn’t anything to go nuts for, but there are a few enticing new options that could draw you to the stadium if you’re in this for culinary reasons.


Just show your Wildcard ID at the Ryan Field gate and you’re all set! That’s one of the many perks of attending this fine university.

Pat Fitzgerald

Known as Fitz to those in the Northwestern community, Pat Fitzgerald is the football team’s head coach, and he’s a living legend for the school. He played for NU from 1993-1996, leading the team to its last Rose Bowl appearance as an All-American linebacker (though he didn’t play in the Rose Bowl game because of a broken leg). He grew up in nearby Orland Park, and has been on the Northwestern coaching staff since 2001.

Fitz has been the head coach since 2006, and he isn’t going anywhere soon. He signed a 10-year (!) extension in 2017, so he’ll be the coach during your time in Evanston. Fitz is genuine, he’s passionate, and he’s a man of the people. You’ll probably love him, unless you’re the nihilistic kind of fan. Oh, and he makes for some good memes and gifs.

Hunter Johnson

If you’re an incoming freshman, you’ve probably read plenty about NU’s quarterback. Johnson is a former five-star recruit that transferred from Clemson after dropping behind Trevor Lawrence (you might have heard of him) and Kelly Bryant (him too) on the depth chart. He is also the brother of former walk-on Cole Johnson.

The Indiana native’s decision to join Fitz’s team was one of the biggest gets in recent Northwestern history. Johnson was expected to take the reins to the offense after the departure of Clayton Thorson, but the past offseason wasn’t that simple.

The redshirt sophomore engaged in a legitimate quarterback battle with TJ Green, and the two shared snaps in the Stanford game. Unfortunately, Green suffered a season-ending injury in Palo Alto, and Johnson is now the definite starting quarterback.

The Fight Song

You’ve probably already learned the fight song during Wildcat Welcome, but you’ll want to know it well for when Northwestern gets into a shootout against Ohio State and the band keeps firing up the song.

Here are the lyrics:

Go U Northwestern!

Break right through that line.

With our colors flying, We will cheer you all the time, U Rah! Rah!

Go! U Northwestern!

Fight for victory,

Spread far the fame of our fair name,

Go! Northwestern win that game.


(Yell) Go! Northwestern Go!


(Yell) Go! Northwestern Go!

Hit ‘em hard!

Hit ‘em low!

Go! Northwestern Go!

(Repeat chorus)

Here’s a video so you can put those words to music.

As our own Zach Pereles and Ian McCafferty aptly pointed out in the original edition of this guide, the lyrics go “Hit ‘em HARD, hit ‘em low,” not “Hit ‘em HIGH, hit ‘em low.” DON’T GET IT WRONG!!

The growl and moving the chains

Students, we’re giving you a fair warning on this one. Ryan Field veterans know it all too well, but after any first down, expect to hear a ridiculously ugly sounding Wildcat growl from the stadium speakers. You’re gonna have to learn to love it, because it doesn’t seem as if it’s going anywhere.

On the bright side, each NU first down and subsequent growl is accompanied by a catchy cadence and handclap sequence led by the Northwestern band. You’ll figure it out pretty quickly, but it essentially entails three alternating slow claps followed up by three alternating fast claps and an emphatic GO ‘CATS fist pump as the drive continues. Then, those at the front of the student section yell “It’s time to move the chains!” (The correct response is “Whoosh!” as your hands move in the direction of the offense). It’s cool, we promise.

Northwestern in the NFL

This program doesn’t have a storied history of developing NFL talent, but it has some significant claims to fame. Otto Graham is the most notable NU alum in this regard, starring at football, basketball and baseball in Evanston. He graduated early to serve in World War II before winning seven (!) national championships with the Cleveland Browns.

Northwestern’s most recent first-round pick was Luis Castillo in 2005. The defensive end had a successful seven-year career with the Chargers. There are now 15 active NU alums in the NFL, and at the beginning of the NFL season, Northwestern was T-42 in terms of colleges represented on active rosters. Not bad!

Why should you follow/support this team?

As we mentioned before, Northwestern football is currently in the midst of its best stretch in program history, so it’s pretty neat that we all get to be a part of that during our time here as students. Whether you’re a lifelong NU football fan or you’ve never seen a snap of the sport in your life, everyone can find a reason to get behind this team. The stadium is close, tickets are free, the band is fun, the food is edible, we are treated to some good matchups, and the team is quite good, even if it doesn’t always play the prettiest brand of football.

This Northwestern team produced some unforgettable moments last season that rank as some of the best in program history, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t continue to create more moving forward.

I think I speak for every writer and commenter of the Inside NU community when I say that nothing quite gives us goosebumps like fall football weekends in Evanston. They’re truly something special, and every member of the Northwestern community should feel welcome to be a part of it.

First-year students, we wish you the best as you embark on your Northwestern careers. Make the most of your time in this wonderful place and try not to trip as you dash across the field Saturday morning! But if you do, that’s okay. Just get up and keep running!

Some of this guide is adapted from last year’s edition.