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A beginner’s guide to Northwestern football: 2021 edition

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Hey Classes of 2024 and 2025, transfers and new grad students! We’ve put together a comprehensive look at the basics of the program.

With classes officially underway in Evanston and the Classes of 2024 and 2025 preparing to attend their first game at Ryan Field this Saturday, 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?

There are two ways to look at this question, one that produces far more favorable of an outlook for NU than the other.

The first perspective one can have on the quality of Northwestern football looks at recent history, which reveals that there has pretty much never been a better time to be a Northwestern football fan than right now. Northwestern has won its division, the Big Ten West, twice in the last three years. As such, the Wildcats have now been to more Big Ten Championship games than Michigan and Iowa combined (feel free to use that one on any friends you may have at those two institutions).

Then there’s a glance at the here and now, which is, admittedly, less pretty. As some of you already experienced at last week’s Duke game watch party in Ryan Fieldhouse, things aren’t exactly going as planned for the 2021 team. Through three games, the Wildcats are 1-2, winning only their contest against measly Indiana State. Additionally, the ‘Cats have seen a number of key players injured, casting a dark shadow over their hopes for the duration of the season.

So, to sum it up: Northwestern is pretty healthy as a football program, with a bevy of recent successes that have made fans even more excited for what’s to come. But, as it stands, the 2021 season may be somewhat of a snoozer for NU.

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 in the process. But sometimes, the ‘Cats can lose super weird games to bad teams — see Northwestern-Akron 2018, Northwestern-Illinois State 2016 and plenty more.

This is college football, so the unexpected is already to be expected. But even more so, this is Northwestern football, so there’s a great chance in any given week that things will go exactly inverse of how they logically should. Want an example? During last year’s run to the Big Ten Championship, the ‘Cats knocked off then-tenth-ranked Wisconsin and jumped all the way up to eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings, only to fall to one-win Michigan State a week later.

The schedule

Unfortunately, this week’s clash with Ohio is one of only four remaining games at Ryan Field this season, as the ‘Cats opened their season with two home contests before many students even made it to campus.

There is good news, though. First, after the Bobcats — who are winless this season — the opponents the Wildcats will face at Ryan Field — Big Ten foes Rutgers, Minnesota and Iowa — have lost a combined one game thus far this season, meaning that a win exciting enough to prompt students to rush the field is possible.

There’s also a special addition to this year’s home schedule. On top of the four games left to be played at Ryan Field, the Wildcats will take a short L trip down to Wrigley Field on November 20 to take on Purdue within the walls of the Friendly Confines. After signing a deal with the Chicago Cubs way back in 2013 to play games at Wrigley, this marks the first game NU will play at the federal landmark since 2010, so it’s a source of much excitement for Chicago’s Big Ten Team.

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 tailgate or brunch 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.

You might’ve heard a bit of chatter about a Ryan Field rebuild earlier this week. Alas, the rumors are true, as NU announced a $480 million contribution from the Ryan Family to complete the university’s $6 billion “We Will” campaign, with an unspecified amount of the Ryans’ donation earmarked for a stadium rebuild. It’s not clear when the redevelopment process will start or where the ‘Cats would play while construction takes place, so for now, the stadium you see on Saturday is NU’s home turf.

FREE TICKETS (well, almost always, at least)

For games at Ryan Field, just show your Wildcard at Gate G and you’re all set! That’s one of the many perks of attending this fine university.

The forthcoming game against Purdue at Wrigley seems to be different, with Northwestern Athletics largely silent on ticket opportunities for students thus far. All that has been said by NU is that student tickets will be available for sale (without a price specified), and that more details would be conveyed in early fall.

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 in his time at the helm, he’s turned the program around entirely, garnering national attention as one of the best coaches in the sport at the collegiate level. Despite a lot of attention from numerous NFL teams, he signed a contract extension with NU this past offseason that should keep him in purple until 2030 (!), so it’s likely he’ll be running the show the entire time you’re here. 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.

The quarterback situation

Oh boy, where to start? As it stands right now, Fitz pulling one of you first-years aside during the dash and having you take snaps from Sam Gerak isn’t too farfetched, as the ‘Cats themselves are in the midst of deciding who they want their quarterback to be.

The short version of the story is that once upon a time Hunter Johnson was a heralded high school recruit and a highly anticipated transfer from Clemson back in 2018. In his brief showings during 2019 and 2021, however, he has disappointed greatly, and he’s likely lost his starting job for good after a four turnover showing at Duke. Ryan Hilinski transferred to NU from South Carolina this offseason, and back in 2019 he put together a serviceable, albeit unspectacular, season for the Gamecocks. Andrew Marty is basically a cult hero at this point and almost everyone’s preferred pick as the starter, although he did suffer an injury against Duke last week that made him leave the contest early.

It’s largely unknown who will start under center for the ‘Cats on Saturday. It’ll likely be one of the three aforementioned QBs, but with the combination of performance and injury issues the group has faced, it’s anyone’s guess as to who it will be.

The Fight Song

You’ve probably already learned the fight song during Wildcat Welcome, but you’ll want to know it well for if/when the Wildcats find the end zone on Saturday.

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.

(Whistle)

(Yell) Go! Northwestern Go!

(Whistle)

(Yelled) 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, moving the chains, and defensive third downs

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.

When NU is on defense and forces a third down, you’ll hear Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” blast from the stadium speakers. This is your sign to start yelling and making noise, in addition to holding up either the number three or a Wildcat “claw” with one of your hands.

Northwestern in the NFL

This program doesn’t have a storied history of developing NFL talent, but it has some significant claims to fame and has made some big strides in the pros in recent years. 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.

More recently, Northwestern had two (!) former players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, a first-time achievement for the program that also made them one of only two teams in the Big Ten (Penn State being the other) who could boast such a claim in 2020. Those two picks, left tackle Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II, are off to rollicking starts in the NFL, garnering praise far and wide for their stellar play just two weeks into their professional careers.

As it stands now, there are currently 15 former Northwestern Wildcats playing for NFL teams (including practice squad players) according to Ourlads.com. Some are more notable than others, such as the Browns’ Anthony Walker, who has now been an established starter in the NFL for years, but all in all, the school has established itself as a better training ground for pro talent than it had in years past.

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 usually 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 in the years to come.

But in 2020, something was missing without fans in the building, as Fitz and some of NU’s players alluded to in their press conference earlier this week. I think we speak for every writer and commenter of the Inside NU community when we 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 the 2019 edition.