Scroll to the bottom for Episode 3 of Get Home Safe, a podcast by co-sports editors Andy Brown and Austin Siegel.
Pat Fitzgerald walks through a crowd of screaming Northwestern students, offering high-fives with a megawatt smile on his face.
The marching band is here too, blasting the fight song despite nearly being drowned out by an ocean of purple-clad Wildcat fans. They are holding signs (“Be Quiet, I’m Trying to Study”) that would seem out of place at any other school in the country.
This is College GameDay at Northwestern. This was almost two years ago.
It’s easy to forget just how long it’s been since ESPN descended on Evanston for one of the biggest games in school history. But when the 16th-ranked Wildcats lost to No. 4 Ohio State 40-30 in that nationally-televised matchup, it marked an unfortunate turning point for the football program.
Since that loss to the Buckeyes, the ‘Cats have gone just 12-14. And after being blown out by Wisconsin the following week, Northwestern hasn’t made a single appearance in the AP or Coaches Poll Top 25.
After a 41-0 blowout win over Eastern Illinois on Saturday, the Wildcats took advantage of some upsets (serious props to Toledo, BYU, Oklahoma and LSU) and moved up to No. 23 in the AP Poll and No. 24 in the Coaches Poll.
It’s a big step forward for the football program, but it won’t mean anything unless the ‘Cats can build on this impressive start to the season. Essentially, it has taken Northwestern almost two years just to achieve the kind of success that brought GameDay to town back in 2013.
But talk to anyone around Ryan Field these days and it’s obvious the ‘Cats aren’t satisfied.
“I talked to the guys about that this morning,” Fitzgerald said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Three weeks ago, I think the only thing written [about us] was negative. So I asked them not focus on those distractions and I would ask them to do the same thing.”
It’s the kind of answer every fan likes to hear, but to an extent, it’s also a somewhat impossible task. Northwestern football has been eulogized so many times over the past few seasons that one would almost hope Fitz let his players know they haven’t been completely buried.
We already know the Wildcats are capable of responding to failure. After a miserable start to the 2014 season, Northwestern pulled off wins against Penn State and No. 17 Wisconsin. And don’t forget, they also ended a four-game losing streak by beating No. 18 Notre Dame.
But success? That’s something the ‘Cats haven’t been faced with in a long time.
“The only thing that matters … ranking-wise is how you rank against your own best self,” Fitzgerald said. “How are you preparing mentally and how are you preparing physically?”
Sophomore running back Justin Jackson had a similar reaction.
“We just want to go out and play football,” Jackson said. “Before the season, no one said anything about us. Now everyone’s saying we’re good. It just comes down to how we feel about us.”
The Wildcats will get their first chance to back up those statements when they face Duke in a tough non-conference matchup on the road this weekend.
Maybe it’s a good thing the schedule takes Northwestern away from Ryan Field for their first game as ranked team in 2015. They won’t have to deal with any off-the-field distractions or the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd. All their focus can remain solely on beating the Blue Devils.
But perhaps there’s another reason the ‘Cats should be confident, at least for a team that seems to play better when victory is unexpected. Because even though they're playing an unranked Duke team, Northwestern is still a 3-point underdog.
Listen below to hear NBN's sports editors reflect on NU's shutout victory over EIU and preview a tough road test at Duke on Saturday.