Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Know who I hate?
The only private school in the Big Ten is located somewhere north of Chicago. They went 8-26-3 against Chicago’s Big Ten Team (the University of Chicago).
Being true innovators, Northwestern decided that they should wear purple and white, be known as the Wildcats and have a mascot called Willie the Wildcat…exactly like Kansas State.
Also, exactly like Kansas State, they decided they should spend decades being a national punchline of a football program.
But prior to this, they won a Big 10 championship in 1903 before just kind of…stagnating. After a winless 1921, Northwestern apparently formed a committee to determine what was wrong with the football program. The committee’s recommendation was essentially “maybe the school and alumni should, you know, give a shit about athletics?”
So they tried, hiring the impossibly-Northwestern-named Glenn Thistletwaite as a head coach, He produced a conference title in 1926, as did his successor Dick Hanley in 1931 and 1932. Hanley’s name was not sufficiently fancy and Pappy Waldorf was brought in to replace him. Waldorf solicited advice from legendary Big Ten coaches Amos Alonzo Stagg and Robert Zuppke of Chicago and Illinois, who told him “try to give a shit about your players” and “i don’t know, maybe try beating someone that matters for once?”
Waldorf took Zuppke’s advice to heart and stopped several potential Notre Dame national titles, and for this I salute him. He won the league in 1936 and then hovered around .500 for a decade before going to California, where he immediately had much greater success. In his second season at Cal, however, he was defeated by his own damn Northwestern Wildcats largely thanks to a suspiciously outrageous no-call of a fumble into the end zone that was instead ruled a touchdown. Northwestern’s only Rose Bowl win came on some absolute bullshit. This is important to remember.
I will be referring to Northwestern as Nern from now on. TV broadcasts never know whether to go “NW”, “N’WSTN,” “NWERN,” “N’WESTERN” or what to do to abbreviate it. Here’s the answer. It’s Nern.
Nern brought in Ara Parseghian in 1956 and by 1962 he had Nern ranked #1 in the AP poll. Fortunately, they suffered back-to-back losses of 3 touchdowns or more before things got out of hand. Anyway, Nern University responded to this unparalleled success by deciding that they didn’t want to be good at football. This was at odds with what Parseghian had done, so he left for Notre Dame where he won two national titles.
After his departure, Nern set about pursuing their “be shitty at football” strategy, but they made the mistake of hiring a former Illini player, three time All-American Alex Agase. Despite Nern’s best efforts to suck at football, he managed back-to-back winning seasons in 1970 and ‘71.
This wouldn’t do for Nern. Purdue snatched Agase away in 1973, so Nern turned to Indiana head coach John Pont. Despite leading Indiana to the Rose Bowl in 1967, Pont had since demonstrated that he could also lose a lot of games. Northwestern believed in his losing potential enough to hire him on, and he did not disappoint. Back-to-back 1-10 seasons impressed Nern leadership enough that Pont was promoted to athletic director.
To further cement their status as a shitty football program by design, Nern tapped Illinois offensive coordinator Rick Venturi to succeed Pont as head coach. His Illini had scored just once in their final three games of the 1977 season, and that was in a humiliating loss that gave Nern their only victory of that year. He was objectively terrible at his job. This suited Nern just fine.
Venturi failed to win a Big Ten game, going 1-31-1 overall.
In 1981, they finally broke the Division 1 record for consecutive losses with 29. Students rushed the field in celebration of Nern achieving a decades-long goal. The streak would reach 34 before ending against Northern Illinois. Head coach Dennis Green was named Big Ten Coach of the year in 1982 for going 3-8 with two Big Ten wins. Northwestern would continue to be awful through the rest of the decade, but not record-settingly so.
At some point, Nern decided to stop sucking and coach Gary Barnett took them to the Rose Bowl with a Big Ten championship in 1995. This team featured linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who was almost as good as Illinois’ Butkus-award winning linebacker Kevin Hardy. Somehow, Barnett went from back-to-back Big Ten titles to losing every Big Ten game two years later. This is arguably more impressive than Ron Turner’s two year title-to-winless run at Illinois from 2001 to 2003. Barnett was still a hot name and so he cashed in while he still could.
Randy Walker brought a spread offense to Nern that won a share of the 2000 league title before spending the next several years bouncing up and down in the standings. His tragic passing in 2006 passed the reins to Pat Fitzgerald, who decided to dismantle this fun offense and instead transform Nern into Shitty Iowa, But With No Fans. He’s had several excellent seasons, but never consecutively. Also important to note is that even when his teams win ten games, they have this neat trick of somehow looking like a 4-win team anyway.
Nern stumbled into the Big Ten title game in 2018, then went 3-9 the following year. They went back to the conference championship match in 2020, then went 3-9 the next season.
Barnett, Walker and Fitzgerald have had Nern firmly in the winning column at times, but you can see from the sharp sawtooth shape of the wins-over-time graph how much Nern wants to return to its natural condition of sucking out loud at football as their forefathers intended.
History vs Illinois
Despite no history of Sioux or Lakota settlement anywhere in eastern Illinois, Nern and Illinois played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy from 1945 until 2008 when the NCAA made a major push to remove Native American imagery. llinois was and still is more than willing to completely move on from anachronistic and problematic Native iconography, but because Nern was so fixated on such things it was agreed that the trophy would remain with Nern.
In its place is the Land of Lincoln trophy, a bronze top hat that looks like a cake mounted on a wooden base. This is also known as the LoL Hat.
The first two meetings between the schools ended in ties. The third was a 66-0 Illini victory.
Being too busy winning national championships to care about Nern, Illini coaches Robert Zuppke and Ray Eliot finished with records of 10-10 and 7-9-1 against them.
Like most of the Big Ten, Illinois beat up on Nern throughout the 70’s and 80’s...except for the aforementioned 1977 debacle and a 1978 game that I believe is the worst game ever played in the history of college football: a scoreless tie between two teams that finished with one win between them.
Anyway, have you read this whole series? If so, then you’ll NEVER GUESS what trend started about 20 years ago.
That’s right, even against Northwestern, the Illini are only 5-14 since 2002. This has nothing to do with nern being good; instead it reveals a fundamental truth.
No good Illinois team has ever lost to Northwestern in football.
It has never happened. It doesn’t mean that a win over Nern makes Illinois good, as plenty of bad Illini teams have beaten Nern. However, an Illinois team that loses to Nern has never been good. Feel free to go through the entire series. I wouldn’t call 2019 a “good” Illinois team. John Mackovic lost to Nern once, but it was in a 6-6 swan song in 1991. Go on. You won’t find a single example.
Illinois hasn’t had a truly good team since 2007, and yet they’ve managed four victories against Nern in this timeframe. Last year’s cathartic beatdown of the Nerncats broke a humiliating six-game losing streak to them.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 56-54-5 against Northwestern (0 national championships, 8 conference titles) A loss last year would have evened the series for the first time since 1971, when Bob Blackman’s 24-7 victory over the Cats put Illinois ahead for the last time. Fortunately, fellow alliterative B coach Bret Bielema took care of business.
Nern was absolutely dreadful last year, and unlike previous Nern down years under Fitzgerald, they couldn’t stop the run. The offense cleared 24 points one time, and the most they scored in their last 6 games was 14. New coordinators Mike Bajakian and Jim O’Neill never found anything that worked with the personnel they had to work with and the season was a complete disaster at every level.
It was delightful. I’d like to see some more of it to be perfectly honest.
Somewhere in there they also beat Rutgers.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Despite being 47 years old, Pat Fitzgerald is absolutely a boomer.
For years, Northwestern’s identity was to play really stupid unwatchable football and win games by one score because they forced a turnover without committing one themselves. They were good at stopping the run, ran the speed option on third down a lot and had erratic special teams.
Longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall is gone and this spread offense has much more modern concepts such as west coast passing elements (short passing to the perimeter is much more common). The beloved Superback position is no longer in the gameplan (a hybrid tight end/fullback type) but they attempt their fair share of power running.
Defensively, O’Neill runs an old school base 4-3, and what I saw from them was a lot of the same kind of linebackers-in-deep-zone-coverage mess that we saw with Lovie Smith. This is why Brandon Peters absolutely dunked on them like Da’Monte Williams winning the basketball game last year.
Dudes To Watch
The best player on the offense is tackle Peter Skoronski, who must have felt very lonely as the only player on the Nern offense holding his own against his home state Fighting Illini last year. Evan Hull will return after rushing for over a thousand yards last year, and it seems that Ryan Hilinski will be the quarterback by default. What I’d like to see happen, however, is that everyone on the Nern offense is terrible except for Donny Navarro. I’m sure he had his reasons for going up there, but I hope his game logs read like “8 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown as the lone bright spot in an 84-10 loss by the Wildcats.”
All American safety Brandon Joseph decided to bail, so now a defense that was already bad last year will lose an awful lot of starters. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
I talked to all six Nern fans and even most of the stadium tarps and there’s not a whole lot of optimism. In previous rebounds from down seasons, there were good elements to the teams. 2019 had a pretty competitive defense and just desperately needed a game managing quarterback. 2013 and 2014 had a lot of pieces that they couldn’t quite piece together. I don’t see the same here. The most optimistic outlook for Nern is that a young roster with coordinators in their 2nd and 3rd years will create a lot of growing pains and trial by fire that will someday yield a competitive team.
That’s not this year though.
Illinois Game Prediction
Bret Bielema won a lot of holdout Illini fans over by loudly and proudly declaring that he would take great pleasure in stomping the piss out of Nern if given the opportunity. I love that Ryan Walters sent a corner blitz on a 3rd and long with a 5-score lead in the fourth quarter.
Given that I see running the ball as a strength for Illinois, I don’t see how Nern can possibly fix the run defense to a great enough extent to win this game. I am actually feeling good about this matchup for once.
Bill Buckner’s death comes with unexpected guilt. The guilt of 8-year-old me, who thanks in part to his error (it’s Calvin Schiraldi & Bob Stanley too) got his only major sports championship (Mets, Jets, Nets, Islanders). Rest In Peace, Bill. I’m sorry my joy came with your pain. pic.twitter.com/P5wbRUAy0u— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) May 27, 2019
Why Northwestern Sucks
I’ve been hating on Nern for years, my friends. Some of the claims down here are obsolete, but the spirit remains true. We’re supposed to respect cute little Nern every time they punch above their scrappy little weight class!
More recently, I went as part of a bachelor party of Michigan State fans to the Nern season opener in Evanston. We parked on campus and it was DEAD. It was a four minute walk to the stadium, but we thought we were in the wrong place because surely there would be some kind of festivities around BIG TEN FOOTBALL, right?
We showed up to the gate about 15 minutes before kickoff, but we missed the first half of the first quarter because the smallest stadium in the Big Ten couldn’t manage a crowd that only filled about 70% of the place. They had a grand total of two lanes/metal detectors at each gate with converging railings that funneled the crowd into a dense mob. A complete disaster in crowd control for the smallest crowds you’ll see in the Big Ten! I’d compare it to a high school stadium, but I don’t remember these crowd control issues at Naperville North.
Northwestern claiming the mantle of “CHICAGO’S BIG TEN TEAM” is extra problematic because unlike Chicago with its rich history of diversity, Evanston is part of the exclusive set of North Shore communities that were essentially segregated until the late 1960’s.
Northwestern doesn’t have a top 5 engineering school in the Big Ten.
Then there’s Pat Fitzgerald himself! He put down the first attempt of a college football team to unionize, and frankly he only escapes criticism as an asshole and a villain because nobody expects Northwestern to be any good at football.
Truly despicable, this institution.
Alex Orr: They act like they’re smart, but really they’re just rich. When the proletariat inevitably revolts, plenty of heads will be rolling away from bodies wearing an ugly shade of purple at the guillotines. Also their gothic architecture really sucks.
Mihir Chavan: Let’s be honest here. Northwestern isn’t Chicago’s Big Ten Team. The people going to watch football at Ryan Field are all the away team fans from Big Ten schools that now live in Chicago.
Matt Rejc: I don’t really have any deep seated personal gripes against Northwestern, but I’ll just never understand their men’s basketball program. I mean seriously, they’re a Big Ten basketball program located in the Chicago suburbs…you’d think somebody would’ve figured out how to get them to the tournament more than once in 83 years by now. But alas, their historic ineptitude shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire): Illinois and Northwestern cannot be good at the same time. We’ve never both had a winning record (at least in my lifetime) Northwestern sucking is step 1 to Illinois being back so get after it Fitzee.
Thumpasaurus Circa 2015: Are you mad about this article? If so, follow these steps: call your personal assistant on your Bluetooth headset and cancel your appointments for next week, cash out the rest of your trust fund into traveler’s cheques, put them in the trunk of your Mercedes S Class, douse them in gasoline and light them on fire, get in the car, activate the massage seats and then drive it into Lake Michigan, then file a fraudulent insurance claim, take that money, go buy a new BMW X6M, don’t signal to change lanes, and then crash it into the side of New Trier High School.