Northwestern football fills void of ETHS sports


Photo by Madison McGuire

Jared Tucker, Staff Writer

One of the greatest Friday traditions in America, high school football, was absent in Illinois this fall due to the coronavirus restrictions set in place by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and Governor J.B. Pritzker. Football fans in Evanston awaited the start of the NFL season to cheer on the Bears, who got off to a miraculous 5-1 start, but then lost six straight games, causing fans to erupt in protest over the team’s horrendous front office and coaching. It was a challenge for sports fans who, without high school sports, were left disappointed by the horrendous Bears. Evanston fans were left to cheer on their hometown Big Ten team, the Northwestern Wildcats.
Under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern has become a respectable and even a powerful Big Ten opponent. Since 2015, they are tied for the fourth-best conference record in the Big Ten, and in 2018, they sliced through conference opponents to earn a spot against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. The Wildcats came into the 2019 season with the Rose Bowl on their mind, but because of quarterback struggles and a plague of injuries, Northwestern fell to 3-9, with only one win in conference play.
There was not much to look forward to after the struggles of last year, and the 2020 season was not off to the start Wildcat fans had hoped for due to the fact that the season was pushed back multiple weeks, and all non-conference games were cancelled. Finally, on Oct. 24, Northwestern was set to open the season at home against Maryland, in front of almost no fans. Northwestern shocked the country that day with a massive 43-3 rout to open the season, their largest victory since a 49-7 win over Bowling Green in September of 2017. The ‘Cats then went on the road to Iowa, playing in Kinnick Stadium, which is known to be one of the toughest places to play in the country. After an abysmal first quarter, Northwestern was down 17-0, but they held Iowa to just three points the rest of the way, coming back strongly to win 21-20 in a thrilling victory.
After the comeback, excitement was looming among Northwestern fans. Many people across the country started to notice them, and fans walked with their heads held high. Northwestern would edge out wins over Nebraska and Purdue, bringing their record to 4-0. The ‘Cats were leading the Big Ten West and were ranked in the Top 20. Northwestern’s biggest matchup in years was coming up, as they were tasked with defending Ryan Field against the 10th ranked Wisconsin Badgers at home. The Badgers seemed to have an explosive offense and an impenetrable defense, as they came into Evanston 2-0 with a 45-7 win over Illinois and a 49-11 victory over Michigan, making an intimidating matchup for the ‘Cats. Nonetheless, Northwestern shut them down, holding their offense to only 7 points, and getting the massive victory, 17-7.
Northwestern was receiving national attention. The team was ranked 11th in the AP Poll and eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings. They were talked about on ESPN, social media, and back in Evanston, where fans were ecstatic to have a football team for whom to cheer. At this point, NU’s biggest threat was taken down. With games against Michigan State, Minnesota (eventually cancelled) and Illinois coming up, three teams without winning records, Northwestern fans drooled over the potential of an undefeated season and began thinking of the potential of playing Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship Game, a matchup whose winner would likely make the College Football Playoff. However, this dreaming ended rather quickly for myself, and the rest of Northwestern fans, as just one week after the ‘Cats upset win over Wisconsin, they got upset themselves, losing a mediocre Michigan State team on the road, which ended the dreams of Northwestern making the CFP. Although that dream has ceased, Northwestern did win the Big 10 West, meaning it will face undefeated No. 4 Ohio State for the chance to win the conference championship with the chance to win its first Big Ten Championship game in program history since the game was introduced in 2011.
Without Friday night football, or rowdy crowds at basketball games, there was a massive void that needed to be filled for high school sports fans and, with most Chicago franchises having less than mediocre seasons, fans found joy in Northwestern, who continue to subvert expectations every year.