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Season opener against Michigan State offers Northwestern shot at revenge, redemption

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The ‘Cats and the Spartans meet again in just four days.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout history, it’s been said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

You’ve all heard it before. While the origins of this statement could be argued — it’s widely credited to French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, though accounts do vary — its interpretation isn’t really up for debate. It means that a well-planned and long-feared revenge is more satisfying than revenge that’s enacted rather quickly. For Northwestern, a near 10-month wait since their 2020 season-derailing loss to Michigan State means they’ve had plenty of time to sit, think and plan out just how they’ll get their retaliation.

“Michigan State is going to be a huge game for us,” redshirt sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “It was our only regular season loss last year, we didn’t forget it, and we’re coming with a vengeance. We know the type of team they are, we know the type of players they have, we’re going to trust in our scheme and our plan to go get them.”

No matter the lens with which you look at things, Northwestern’s loss to the Spartans last season was nothing short of a disaster. For one, the Wildcats entered East Lansing at 5-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country after handling Wisconsin 17-7 the previous week. Meanwhile, Michigan State came into the game sitting at 1-3, with their last played game being two weeks prior when they failed to score a single point against a talented Indiana squad, falling 24-0.

Throughout the game, the Wildcats were sloppy. Uncharacteristically so. The offensive line lost one-on-one battles early, putting plenty of pressure on Peyton Ramsey. The defense didn’t seem to have answers for Michigan State’s ground game. On top of that, Northwestern turned the ball over four times. All around, it was a brutal showing.

Whether it was because they came into the game on a high or some other reason entirely, the ‘Cats went on to lose to the Spartans by a final score of 29-20, dropping Northwestern to 5-1 and placing their only hopes of making a New Year’s Six bowl on beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. The loss also ended all dreams of a potentially miraculous Wildcat appearance in the 2021 College Football Playoff.

“I thought we were really focused when we came up here,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said following the loss. “We put ourselves in a hole, but I thought the guys responded and the lack of what you saw was more so being dictated by the outcomes of some plays. I’ve got to coach our guys to be better than that. I thought they were ready to play.”

In short, they weren’t ready.

This time around, though, it may be a different story. Many features make this game different than the last between the two teams. For one, it’s being played at Ryan Field, not Spartan Stadium. Additionally, with vaccines now widespread, fans will be in attendance. It’ll be an entirely different atmosphere for the Wildcats, whose only game last season played in front of fans was the Citrus Bowl, and the Spartans, who didn’t play a single game in front of a crowd last year.

“How could you not get fired up? Everyone’s itching right now to play some ball in front of some fans. It gets you fired up, especially coming off of a year like last year,” defensive lineman Joe Spivak said. “We’re all going to be itching to hit someone that’s not in purple. It’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere for both teams, we’re going to compete to win and we’re going to come ready to play. It’s going to be awesome.”

If you compare the 2020 Wildcats to their 2021 team, the only similarity may be the fact that both teams were counted out before the season even began. 2020 Northwestern football was coming off of a horrific 3-9 season, and many just weren’t sure how that team would play. 2021 Northwestern football is being discarded as an inexperienced team that just lost arguably their best offensive player to a season-ending injury, with a new defensive coordinator to boot.

That inexperience puts the ‘Cats in a unique position. Many that will start on the field Friday night didn’t even play or saw limited action against the Spartans a year ago. After all, Northwestern is returning just 34% of its production from last season, good enough for 126th in all of college football. Yet the general feeling around the program regarding revenge, especially among those who played MSU last year like Joseph and Spivak, appears strong.

Even regardless of this specific Northwestern squad’s inexperience, the ‘Cats have not been put in the position to get revenge for a while. In fact, this specific situation they now find themselves in might just be incomparable to anything else.

It could be argued that the last time Northwestern had as good a team as 2020 was the 1995 Rose Bowl team. That 1995 squad lost to Miami of Ohio, but Northwestern didn’t play them again until 2006, winning easily. The potential to avenge their last season’s huge upset loss in the first game of the year is pretty much unheard of for the ‘Cats, making it all the more important.

This week, the weather in Evanston will be beautiful. Temperature highs will sit in the mid-70s throughout the week, with very little rain predicted on any given day. It’s projected to be a much cooler few days than the past month or so, where temperatures soared into the mid-90s and even hit triple digits at one point this summer.

Maybe, just maybe, this week’s drop in temperatures is meant to reflect when revenge is served best.