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A Catfight Comeback, Lions 34-Wildcats 29
Evanston, IL - We plopped our butts down 66 rows up on the 10-yard line in section 127 behind the Northwestern bench toward the southern end of Ryan Field. "Forty-yard line", we were told by the friendly neighborhood ticket scalper, but we knew better. Even so, it wasn't bad on being on the 20. However, we thought sitting behind a pole went out of style when they refurbished Yankee Stadium! We moved down toward the 10 with a much better vista. The scoreboard read, "Northwestern 10 Penn State 0, 2:06 left in Q1". We heard the first score - Frosh RB Tyrell Sutton's 1-yard plunge to conclude the Wildcats scoring drive on the first possession - over the radio before parking in a neighborhood about 1/2 a mile from Ryan Field, and then following some other Wildcat stragglers to find the stadium until we met the friendly, neighborhood scalpers, who gave into a deal as we started to walk on the initial, outlandish price offered halfway into the first period. He saw the light and called us back. We missed PK Joel Howell's 20-yard FG to extend the lead to ten, but we were right there to watch Lions Tony Hunt and BranDon Snow let a short, high kickoff drop between them so Northwestern could start a new drive at the PSU 26. This play was right under our noses. Our conversation, started back in the car, continued about the possibility of leaving this one and heading two hours away to Madison, WI, where the Badgers would host Michigan in a 5 o'clock start. That thought stayed with us throughout this game. The half ended and NU introduced their Women's Championship LaCrosse team, an indication that the Wildcats ARE competitive in the Big Ten.
Howell, who was later named the Big Ten's special teams player of the week, tallied three more with a 25-yard FG to take a 13-0 lead for the Wildcats. PSU then got things together on its next drive starting from the 20 and finishing with a 37 yard TD pass from QB Michael Robinson to Frosh WR Justin King on the left sideline. Kevin Kelly's conversion cut the lead 13-7, and the Lions' Jason Ganter (son of former PSU O-coordinator Fran Ganter) jumped on the fumbled kick-off to put PSU at the NU 26. The opportunity was thrown away as Robinson got bumped and threw an INT to LB Adam Kadela who brought it back to his 29. A 38-yard pass from QB Brett Basenez to WR Jonathan Fields got NU to the 1-yard line. Tyrell Sutton finished the job again from there to make the score 20-7. On the next series, Robinson's pass was under-thrown and tipped by WR Brendan Perretta where CB Marquice Cole intercepted and brought it down to the PSU 16. GGA Rich Williams (Cal Maritime) noted that all of Robinson's passes were off the mark making it difficult for his receivers to catch. Most were under-thrown and receivers who made catches had to come back to get to the ball. This was noticeable throughout the game. PSU's D held NU to a 41-yard FG by Howell, and Northwestern had taken advantage of PSU's turnovers to lead 23-7 in the first half. Madison, WI, here we come? The Lions put together a nice drive starting from their own 20, and Robinson was about to take it in until until he coughed the ball up at the NU 3-yard line. The Lions took over again from their own 39 after forcing NU to punt. With urgency, they scored again on a 25-yard pass when Robinson (finally) LED Deon Butler, another frosh wide-out, into the end zone on a 25-yard scoring strike. With :35 remaining, PSU had closed the score, 23-14. We just had the feeling that the neither the Lions nor the Wildcats were going to give up. Madison could wait, but we were set to go. Two hours away? What else were we going to do any way?
Northwestern's band was pretty good. Rich noted the peeling steel infrastructure of the stadium we were sitting under and wondered when the last inspection was done. A $30 million refurb was completed before the 1997 season, the season after the Wildcats' 1995 Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl appearance. Rich also pondered, how did they come up with the name Northwestern any way? The informative NU program, called The Den, spells that out. Founded in 1851, the private university was established to serve "the Northwest Territory, the area now known as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota." Teams of Huskies were still exploring the lairs of Cougars in what we know now as the Pacific Northwest. The Wildcat name? In an article by Wallace Abbey of the Chicago Tribune in 1924 after the NU-Chicago game, "football players had not come down from Evanston; Wildcats would be a better name suited to Coach Thistlethwaite's boys...a purple wall of Wildcats." This is what's known as the power of the pen. Chicago was known as the Maroons. We wonder what writer originated that nickname? We don't know what he was drinking either. We only know how he named the team.
After an NU fair catch on the three (what was Marquice Cole thinking?) and a short punt out to the 39, PSU got on the board next with Kevin Kelly's 25-yard FG to trail by six, 23-17. NU missed a 48-yard attempt later in the third period after a 19-yard option play on a fake punt kept the purple team's drive alive. PSU was threatening on the NU 18 as the period ended. Northwestern introduced some more student champs - swimming, wrestling, etc.- between quarters, more proof that the Wildcats ARE competitive in the Big Ten..
PK Kelly's 29-yarder brought PSU closer, 23-20. Shamika Holmes was introduced as Usher of the Game, a Collegefootballfan.com first! We're still picking cheerleaders! S Chris Farrel knocked down a Basanez pass on third and ten, and NU settled for a 46-yarder by Howell, extending the lead to six, but still keeping PSU in striking distance. And strike, they did! King, the frosh WR out of Pittsburgh, took a reverse pitch 43 yards to the Wildcat 8. Robinson ran it up the gut from there, and Kelly's point after gave the Lions their first lead of the game. With 8:52 remaining, NU had already used up all their time-outs. On a supposed stop on a third and fifteen from the three, PSU was hit with a questionable call on a hit out of bounds. Directly across from us, it looked like Basanez was sill in bounds when the hit was made. NU had life again from its 25 and took advantage to drive down to give Mr. Howell the opportunity to re-take the lead, and he did so from 25 yards away, 29-27. PSU's defense truly was bending, but not breaking this day. With 2:11 left, PSU took over from the 20. On fourth and fifteen Robinson connected with TE Isaac Smolko for a 20-yard gain and a first down. Robinson connected on two consecutive passes with Deon Butler of 12 and 13 yards to get to the NU 40. We moved closer to a portal to beat the crowd and traffic out for our planned excursion to Madison. With 51 ticks left, Robinson under-threw Frosh WR Derrick Williams, who came back for the ball, caught it, and circled the defender to the end zone for a 35-yard TD catch. Kelly converted to make the score 34-29. With no time-outs left, NU had to go to the air, and Howell's foot was not an option. However, CB Anwar Phillips' INT put an end to the Wildcat threat, and for the second time in about 16 hours, we saw an exciting college football game undecided until the last minute of play! The previously excited NU crowd got quiet, and got ready to go home. We beat them out of the stadium to our rental car, but Chicago traffic is another story (see below).
PSU goes home to face undefeated Minnesota next week, 42-35 OT upset winner over Purdue on this day. The Wildcats have a week off before hosting undefeated Wisconsin, 23-20 upset winner over Michigan on this day. Both PSU and NU will have to pull off a few upsets of their own over the next seven games if either wants to get to a bowl. Despite records of 4-0 and 2-2 respectively, their real work is now ahead of them in conference play. Aside from Illinois for both of them, they'll probably be underdogs in every game remaining. With Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin undefeated, and Michigan and Iowa with two losses each, the balance of power has suddenly shifted. We still look for Ohio State to be there at the end. We'll see them in two weeks at State College. Indiana is undefeated and despite new Coach Terry Hoeppner, it's still Indiana. Robinson will have to get his passing game going if PSU plans to challenge the cream of the Big Ten. We're hoping he does so Joe gets another bowl game before he decides what to do with the rest of his life. NU, like PSU, has some good young players. We think we will see Brett Basanez play QB for some team on Sundays in the future.
Extra points: NU's Howell was the Big Ten's Special Team player of the week, but PSU's Dave Posluszny garnered Defensive player of the week with 22 tackles. NU's LB Tim McGarigle is college football's returning, leading tackler with 425 and led the Big Ten this season coming in. He led his team in this game with nine. NU's record is 503.
For a school that doesn't win often, the spirit is still strong at Northwestern. The student body stood throughout the game. The PA announcer kept all NU fans fired up with his "Wildcat first and ten" calls.
The NU campus and Ryan Field remind us very much of an Ivy League setting as opposed to a Big Ten setting. Nestled in a downtown area, the stadium is part of the neighborhood. The campus was nice, but there were no signs leading us to Ryan Field. We found shuttle bus parking, but we knew we were late and followed a car with a Northwestern football bumper sticker and winged it from there. Streets were packed with parked cars, so we parked as far from the stadium as anybody.
Well, we headed out of town to I-94/90 determined to make it to Madison for a shot at the Michigan-Wisconsin game. It would have been unbelievable to be there after witnessing the other two we had just attended! If we couldn't get tickets there, the plan was to find a local sports bar. We figured two+ hours. In about 45 minutes, we were still in Chicago crawling North on 90 after we had to do a u-turn as we never saw a 90 connector heading south on 94. Plan B - Chicago White Sox game? No. Plan C - Milwaukee Brewers game? No, too far now, too. Plan D - find a sports bar! It was the right plan. We found a parking lot on Hubbard and hoofed around town starting with Harry Caray's. We watched all the great college games (baseball, too -Sox and Brewers included) and kept up with scores, drank beer, had appetizers for dinner (the dinners were outside our budgets for a night out), and sang "Take me out to the Ballgame!", a Harry Caray tradition. Someone in the men's room actually asked the attendant there if he know about the Army score. "I was there!" I exclaimed as I came out from the toilet, and told him the result to his disbelief - not about the result, but that someone in Chicago was in West Point the night before. From there, we visited another sports bar, Mother Hubbard's, with very accommodating services. They asked us what games we wanted to watch, and they obliged. We watched the Wisconsin win over Michigan next to a table of very excited married and single female Wisconsin fans. Also watched USC turn it on in the second half against Oregon. UGA beat Mississippi State in a yawner. From there we went to the Blue Chicago Blues Club on North Clark at Ohio. It was great! The Charlie Love Blues Band with Nellie Travis were tremendous entertainers with crowd participation and sing-alongs. It was packed and worth the cover. It turns out we were few of the American visitors there. Everyone else seemed to be from another country - Japan, Sweden, Korea, California! The Swedes told us about their interest in American sports during a music break, but that's about all I remember about them. We found a hotel, slept about six hours and caught an early flight back to Philly. Wish that we could have reported on the Michigan-Wisconsin game in person for a third, exciting game, but it turned out to be a fun evening to check out the nightlife in Chicago on a Saturday night. We'll have to do it again some time. Maybe after a trip to Madison. We'll go to Madison the night before!