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Fun facts, figures and notes about Northwestern football’s 2023 schedule

Only eight days away from the start of a new season.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

After 229 days without amusing Dr. Pepper commercials, eerie mascots galore and the inherent zaniness of the sport, college football is officially back, with No. 13 Notre Dame and Navy kickstarting the 2023 FBS season in Dublin, Ireland (the Irish can only hope to be as successful as Northwestern was there). Boy, does it feel good to be back.

For fans of the Wildcats, the wait is a bit longer, stretching until the traditional Week One when the team will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey and take on Rutgers. With NU starting to conclude its lengthy fall camp and shift into game week preparation, here are notable tidbits about every nook and cranny of the ‘Cats’ 2023 schedule.

Week One: at Rutgers (Piscataway, New Jersey)

This year will mark the fourth straight that Northwestern begins against a Big Ten opponent, having beaten Nebraska last year, fallen to Michigan State in 2021 and dominated Maryland in 2020. The team hasn’t played against a conference foe to start a season four straight times since 1979-82. As for the day of the game, NU hasn’t ever played on a Sunday.

All-time, the Wildcats are 2-3 against the Scarlet Knights. Of course, the program’s last win in America came against RU in Oct. 2021.

Northwestern is on a two-game winning streak against Rutgers dating back to 2018, but is 1-2 battling the team in New Jersey. Interestingly enough, the ‘Cats have never scored more than 27 points against the Scarlet Knights, while Rutgers has averaged only 22 points per game vs. NU — Sept. 3 could very well prove to be another low-scoring affair between the two.

Week Two: UTEP Miners (Evanston, Illinois)

It might come as little surprise to learn that UTEP and Northwestern have never squared off on the gridiron. The Miners play in Conference USA, meaning that this will be the Wildcats’ first contest against that conference since beating Rice on Nov. 12, 2011.

NU’s 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff will mark the latest for a home opener since it began the 2021 season in primetime vs. MSU. More specifically, it’s the latest kick for a Saturday beginner since 2020 against the Terrapins.

Week Three: at Duke Blue Devils (Durham, North Carolina)

While the ‘Cats are 10-12 all-time against the Blue Devils, the last few years have not been kind to the purple and white against their ACC foe. Duke has bested Northwestern each of the past four matchups (dating back to 2017), with last year’s heartbreaker serving as a nail in the metaphorical coffin.

NU’s last win in Durham came in 2015, with (now retired) Justin Jackson leading the charge. The ‘Cats will be seeking their first win against an ACC competitor since defeating Pitt in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl.

Week Four: Minnesota Golden Gophers (Evanston, Illinois)

These Big Ten West foes will have played in each of the last three years, plus 16 of the past 17 seasons. However, the contests have not been entirely competitive of late, with Minnesota winning the last three by a combined score of 110-39. All time, the Wildcats’ record against the Gophers is 36-56-5.

Northwestern’s last win over Minnesota at Ryan Field came in 2017. With the game played on Sept. 23, this will be the earliest ever duel between NU and UMN in a season.

Week Five: Penn State Nittany Lions (Evanston, Illinois)

2023 will mark the third matchup between Northwestern and Penn State since 2016, but the second in two years. In each of their prior two games vs. PSU, the Wildcats have scored only seven points.

Yet, Northwestern beat the Nittany Lions at home as recently as 2015, when Jackson outrushed Saquon Barkley and posted a gaudy 195 scrimmage yards. The all-time record for NU against Penn State is 5-15, but the last four matchups have been an even 2-2, so this one could sway favor.

Week Six: Howard Bison (Evanston, Illinois)

As with UTEP, it should stun few to learn that Howard and Northwestern have never faced one another in football. This Oct. 7 matchup is also set to serve as the school’s Homecoming game; it will be the first time the Wildcats have not opposed a Big Ten team on Homecoming since at least 1998.

Moreover, this game will be the third straight played by the ‘Cats in Ryan Field. Other recent years that have had that phenomenon are 2022, 2019, 2018 and 2016.

Week Seven: Bye

Unlike last year, when the ‘Cats had two separate weeks without a game, this year will be more traditional in having a bye that’s smack dab in the middle of the season. The 2022 team also had a reprieve with six games under its belt.

Week Eight: at Nebraska Cornhuskers (Lincoln, Nebraska)

These recent intra-division rivals have vacillated which side emerges victorious every year since 2018, which might be a bad omen for the Wildcats this time around. However, if the ‘Cats do beat the Huskers — their last team defeated — for the second straight season, they will have done so in consecutive campaigns for the first time since 2017-18.

In their two long histories, Northwestern and Nebraska have only played 16 times, with the Cornhuskers holding a 9-7 advantage. When playing in Lincoln, the ‘Cats have gone 3-5, with the last W in Memorial Stadium coming in 2017. NU’s last trip to Nebraska was nightmarish, ending with a 56-7 final.

Week Nine: Maryland Terrapins (Evanston, Illinois)

Maryland is one of just two conference teams against which Northwestern has a winning record, with the other being Indiana. The ‘Cats and Terps have played only three times, with three of the eventual four meetings occurring since 2020.

The lone time that Northwestern hosted Maryland was highly fruitful. To kickstart an eventual Citrus Bowl-winning 2020 season, the Wildcats blasted UMD 43-3, collecting three interceptions of Taulia Tagovailoa and rushing for 325 yards and four touchdowns.

Week 10: Iowa Hawkeyes (Chicago, Illinois)

While the Wildcats and Hawkeyes have gone toe-to-toe each of the last 18 seasons, with NU winning 10 of those 18, Iowa has enjoyed a recent swing of success. Kirk Ferentz & Co. have beaten Northwestern in three of the last four years, securing a 90-46 scoring margin in that span.

The ‘Cats will look to turn the tide in Wrigley Field, where the team last played in 2021 against Purdue. 2023 will prove to be the school’s third football game played in the Friendly Confines, but the Wildcats are 0-2 so far on Addison and Clark.

Week 11: at Wisconsin Badgers (Madison, Wisconsin)

Iowa and Wisconsin each have parallels as opponents for Northwestern. Despite back-and-forth affairs this century, the other Big Ten West school has started to prevail since 2021. More specifically, UW has won the last two games against the ‘Cats, and in dominant fashion.

Playing in Camp Randall Stadium has been daunting for Northwestern, as the purple and white have not left Madison victors since 2015. Since 2000, NU has gone a measly 2-7 up north.

Week 12: Purdue Boilermakers (Evanston, Illinois)

After ripping off five straight wins over Purdue from 2014-18, the Wildcats have dropped three of the last four to the Boilermakers, including two home matchups. This game will be the first against the two sides in Evanston since 2019.

When facing Purdue in Chicago or Evanston, Northwestern has gone 4-6 in the 21st century. Likewise, if the Boilermakers are able to beat NU for the third straight year, it would prove to be their longest stretch of wins against the ‘Cats since they took seven in a row from 1997-2003.

Week 13: at Illinois Fighting Illini (Champaign, Illinois)

Northwestern dominated the HAT rivalry for quite some time, but the Illini have returned with a vengeance against their in-state rivals, claiming the last two trophies — and scoring 41 or more points in both instances.

If you’re looking for reasons for a turnaround against Illinois, NU isn’t exactly a stranger to winning downstate, having gone 6-3 in Champaign since 2003, including 3-1 since 2013. Further, the Illini haven’t claimed three consecutively over Northwestern since 1988-90.