A year ago today, the mere prospect of kicking off during the 2020 calendar year was dim. Northwestern undergraduates were barely allowed to step foot on campus, let alone in the stands at Ryan Field. Downtown Evanston resembled somewhat of a ghost town, and Northwestern was not just coming off a bad season, but their worst during the entire tenure of Pat Fitzgerald.
Flash forward 12 months, a Big Ten West title, a Citrus Bowl victory, two first round draft picks and some “Good Clean American Fun” later, and the ‘Cats are back for more — oh, and so are the fans, but this time in person.
While consistency was hardly an issue when it came to winning games last season (albeit barring the soon-to-be-avenged loss against Sparty), what Fitz and Co. have lacked in recent years is consistency in between seasons. The jump down from 2018’s Big Ten West Championship to a dismal 2019 season was disappointing, but 2020 definitely answered lingering questions that remained concerning NU’s credibility as a serious Big Ten contender. What the ‘Cats need to do now is pick up where they left off to show the conference and the country they are the real deal once again.
And what better way to do so than by handing it to the one team the ‘Cats couldn’t seem to defeat in last year’s go-around — Michigan State.
There are quite a few questions Northwestern fans likely have on their mind leading up to Saturday’s matchup. How will the rushing game look without Cam Porter? How will Hunter Johnson step up as a leader at the helm? How will Brandon Joseph build off his breakout freshman year? How will the ‘Cats survive without the mystical wall that is the Irish Law Firm?
The answers? Look to Evan Hull, grad transfer Andrew Clair and true freshman Anthony Tyus for advice on question number one, trust Fitz and Mike Bajakian on question number two, see BJo’s rack of preseason honors for question number three and rely on Chris Bergin’s leadership for number four. The rest is TBD.
What Saturday will guarantee, however, is the return of students, alumni and loyal Northwestern fans to Ryan Field. The one thing missing from last season’s memorable journey was the sea of purple and white making their way to the stadium on Central Street. Nonetheless, the loss of in-person games did remind everyone what a privilege it is to be able to watch ‘Cats hold their own in a conference full of schools and athletic programs that should make Northwestern look tiny in comparison, but often don’t.
True, it gets tiring having to prove you deserve your place in one of the most respected conferences in college football, but it never gets old proving everyone wrong over and over again.