In the days in advance of showdowns with ranked teams, with playoff ramifications on the line or even in primetime, journalists often ask athletes whether or not they’re approaching the game any differently. Frequently, the answer is no — that the team can’t worry about outside hype, and instead needs to remain true to its fundamentals.
From a press perspective, one could argue that covering a game should be the same way, with atmosphere or external circumstances not dictating emotions. But, I’d be lying if I said that was the case prior to Northwestern’s Week 12 tilt with Purdue.
With the sun beaming down on a high-cut grass field around 9:45 a.m. Saturday, it was hard not to soak everything in before the Wildcats’ last home game of the season. Even while walking through dark stadium tunnels to get onto the field or noticing pylons outfitted with purple “N”s, I earnestly told myself, don’t take this for granted. So much for the thought of stoicism: Saturday’s matinee did have higher energy, because it was set to be Northwestern’s final game at Ryan Field (barring the Evanston City Council’s Monday vote).
That buzz was palpable among fans tailgating and fellow media members, too. That is, until we reached the second drive of the game for both teams.
Although Northwestern went 53 yards in four plays to jumpstart a 6-0 lead, neither team found the board again until the 7:38 mark of the third quarter, when Jack Olsen converted a 30-yard field goal. In effect, the sides went almost two full hours of real time without scoring whatsoever. It was evident early on that a bonafide Big Ten West brawl had ensued, and that’s exactly what transpired.
On the afternoon, NU and PU combined to go 11-for-30 on third down, miss two field goals under 45 yards and score only two touchdowns despite having six total red zone possessions. There wasn’t much to write home about if you enjoyed clean execution or protection of the pigskin.
Yet, therein lies the innate, unbridled beauty of not just Northwestern’s division, but also of Wildcat football.
Both in 2023 and in past decades, wins have come dotted with warts; little has gone perfectly to script. Saturday was another one to add to the ledger of ugly victories, with Purdue rushing for over 300 yards, more than doubling Northwestern’s number of “big” plays (10+-yard runs/15+-yard completions) and having a 15% higher offensive success rate. Despite allowing the Boilermakers to consistently get deep in their territory, the Wildcats’ defense came up clutch time and time again — including surrendering no points on three plays from inside the 2-yard line, and on Xander Mueller’s game-winning interception from the NU 35.
When reading those metrics and watching the tape, you could be amazed at Purdue’s offensive ineptitude inside opponent territory despite moving downfield easily, struck by the ‘Cats’ key stops or a combination of both (this is where I fall). For as frustrating as such a game may have been, it reflects the very tenets of Northwestern football since it started playing at Ryan Field in 1926: victory, no matter how, is the only priority.
Even the attendance element of Saturday was a microcosm of nearly 550 games on Central Street. As usual, students donning purple, white and black filled in along the southwest section all the way throughout the first quarter. Sure, it may have looked sparse to start, but that area eventually appeared mostly full to cheer on NU.
The icing atop a bittersweet farewell cake (which some literally brought) was students storming the field after securing the win against the Boilermakers, the program’s golden ticket to play in a bowl game after going 4-20 the last two years. Would many other supporters of Power Five programs have rushed onto midfield to surround their head coach after beating a 3-7 rival? Maybe not — but that’s precisely what makes Northwestern, as an institution and athletics phenomenon, so distinct.
When delving deeply into the Wildcats’ season, you could argue that none of their wins have been perfect; even a 38-7 beatdown over UTEP was tied at the break, and a homecoming game with Howard was a struggle to close out. There’s considerable room for improvement in all three phases as the program looks to 2024 and beyond with David Braun as its full-time head coach.
That being said, to look from a macro lens and consider that Northwestern sits at 6-5 with a 4-4 Big Ten record and will play in a bowl game is purely pretty magical. That’s true based on not only the personnel losses NU suffered and the miserable struggles from 2021-22, but more so considering a program shrouded in deep-seated hazing and culture controversy just four months ago.
If Northwestern were currently 2-9, few would have batted an eye. Instead, Braun has completely resuscitated a program that truthfully looked on the brink of flatlining.
Following the evacuation of the field and conclusion of postgame pressers, media members had a chance to bask in Ryan Field’s glory one final time. In an especially touching moment, a father and his two young sons even dug up pieces of purple end zone grass to preserve and, as the dad said, pass down to their children. Seriously, try not to get choked up.
My close friend/fellow Inside NU EIC David Gold and I walked all 100 yards deliberately and introspectively, recognizing the honor we’ve had to call this unique place home and the indelible memories forged here. Even then, we couldn’t help but remark at how badly an upgrade was needed, noticing rusting bleachers, purple foam backings lining uncomfortable seats and a single video board under 1,200 square feet.
For all of its flaws, Ryan Field will always possess an innate charm and quaintness, a sort of reprieve from an exponentially growing sport with billion-dollar allotments. In lots of ways, that’s the exact essence that Northwestern football has carried with it for these 97 years — and which will remain foundational, no matter where the ‘Cats call home.