The Final Season
by Far East Wildcat
An occasional series of random thoughts and reminiscences
from a Wildcat football fan in his final season as a season ticket
Duke gameday experience started pleasantly enough, with the first
meeting of the season for the tailgate gang and my bringing, by some
tradition that I’ve lost track of, Hungarian brats for the table.
Irksome, though, was the trek through the half empty west parking lot.
This has been an all too common sight since the new parking policy, but
more on this later.
The finality of this being my final season hit during the pregame show, when the band went into the star formation and blared God Bless America
to the standing, half-filled stands. I recalled gentler days, before
the War on Terror, when the band would make that same star formation
and play America the Beautiful in the pregame routine. I often
found myself moved by it, especially in the late 90’s when I only made
it to Evanston for a handful of games while working in the Far East. It
gave me a bond to the program, the school and the country that endured
beyond my many travels. God Bless America seemed harsh and
borderline jingoistic in contrast, and for many years I hoped that it
would be retired and the tradition of playing America the Beautiful restored.
Eventually I came to the realization that this was not to be, and that
I should not have been surprised. Traditions can die easily at
Northwestern – what should one expect from a school that renamed its
stadium a mere seventy years after being named otherwise in perpetuity by its board of trustees?
The game was a clunker, with the ‘Cats quickly surrendering a
seven-point lead and falling behind by fourteen. Once again, the
defense steadied. Once again, the offense sputtered and the offensive
line underperformed. A well-coached Duke team did not make the mistakes
of a Brohm-coached Boilermaker squad and the ‘Cats fell to the Blue
Devils for the second time in as many seasons. Very hard to watch, as
the offensive ineptitude has become far too familiar.
The crowd around me was restless, especially in the second half.
Complaints went beyond the team to the concessions, with long lines,
limited menu selection and early sell outs of some soda brands
dominating the conversations. So much for the oft touted concern for
the season ticket holder experience.
Arriving home, the latest money-grubbing missive from Morty awaited me.
A quick flick of the wrist and I landed it in the recycling bin.
Memo to Morty: You can drop a quarter of a billion on a practice facility, but on Saturdays they still have to go out and block…
Now on to the Akron Zips. Will the Wildcats rebound from their pathetic
performance at the hands of Duke? Will they stay true to form and play
to the level of their competition? Will Zips’ coach Terry Bowden pull
out all stops in a night game on national television? Will we learn
anything about the team to guide our expectations for the upcoming
major test against Michigan in two weeks?
With high hopes fading, I have to remind myself that there are still
many games ahead and that there is plenty of room for improvement.
The 2018 Big Ten campaign got off to a nice start, most notably for the
“W”. True to form, this first game was lost rather than won, with
Purdue’s defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal providing the game losing dead
ball foul that sealed the Wildcat victory.
An uneventful drive to West Lafayette ended with a parking lot surprise
when our group of fans, coming from north and south in four vehicles,
arrived within a few minutes of each other at the IM Gold parking lot.
It felt like the planes from the Hornet, Yorktown and Enterprise
arriving simultaneously over the Japanese carriers at the battle of
Midway. Tailgate space established, we endured guffaws from the Purdue
fans as we quaffed flutes of cava, toasting the new season.
Donning a 1995 Big Ten champions hat in honor of the title winning game
of that year, I was pleasantly surprised to see Rob Johnson and then
Steve Schnur from that team as I headed into the east stands. The vibes
seemed very positive.
The game, like many over the years, was an emotional roller coaster –
perhaps this is part of the enduring appeal of college football,
certainly part of the appeal of Northwestern football. To our delight
we saw the Wildcats, led by Clayton Thorson, establish a quick start
and a 14 -point lead. Then just as quickly the lead vanished and
Purdue’s freshman sensation, Rondale Moore, looked as if he would take
over the game. The Wildcats went on to pounce on Boilermaker miscues
and led briefly by 17 points just ahead of halftime. And then the music
The ‘Cats offense sputtered and would score no more, starting the
second half with drives of four, three, six and three plays for a mere
fifty-five yards. Purdue whittled away the lead, trailing by only 4
after the first play of the fourth quarter.
The hour was late, the Purdue fans were well oiled, and got chippy as
they sensed an oncoming win. The Wildcats, however, showing late season
form, dug in and held on. The defense stoned the Boilermakers in their
final two possessions for a net five yards, and the offense managed to
mount an improbable fourteen play drive for the final 7:58. The final
two minutes were gifted by Lorenzo Neal’s penalty at the end of Jeremy
Larkin’s one-yard loss on third and eleven from the Purdue thirty-four
“Bull@#$%!”, bellowed a drunken Boilermaker fan behind me. “You can’t
call a penalty after the play!” The crowd booed mightily, and the
whining endured for the duration, rivalling the Kentucky fans at last
year’s Music City bowl.
We left the stadium after singing the fight song with the team, and the
taunts about the officiating from the angry Boilermaker fans raised no
response. This was a shame, as the those fans saw much to be encouraged
by, and I had the feeling that the Wildcats may have been fortunate to
face Purdue in a first game context.
While there was much to see as projects for the Wildcats’ coaches and
players in the week to come before the Duke game, like tackling, kick
coverage and returns, receiver route running and the like, there were
also some positive take-aways beside the “W”. Thorson started and was
alternated with backup T.J. Green, who went from a bad case of the
“yips” in the first quarter to a masterful endgame in the fourth.
Thorson showed flashes of his old brilliance and then some, though his
mobility was understandably curtailed. The mere fact that the ‘Cats
could stay the course with the alternation at quarterback and walk away
with a win was itself a victory.
I started to think ahead to the upcoming game with Duke. The ‘Cats were
man handled by the Blue Devils last season. Morty’s “Wildcat Avengers”
will need to perform at a much higher and more consistent level than
they did at Purdue to pay back that beating.
As the ‘Cats had held on for the win, though, I was grateful to be able
to drive out of West Lafayette still carrying my high hopes.
Closing in on 30 years as a Northwestern football season ticket holder
I am about to enter my final season. I’ve carried a family legacy as NU
football fans that stretches back to the Pappy Waldorf era, and note
the irony that I’m hanging it up despite my high expectations for the
program and its future prospects.
Born on the day of one of just three wins in a dark season of the Bob
Voigts era, I seemed destined to be a Northwestern football fan. My
father’s first game was in the Pappy Waldorf era. My mother sang Go! U
Northwestern to me as she toweled me off after my baths as a babe. I
remember the greater crisis in the fall of 1962 – not Cuban missiles,
but a crushing loss to Wisconsin and my parents’ dashed hopes for a
trip to the Rose Bowl. I held my first season ticket as a freshman in
the Alex Agase era and was present at the creation of the Dark Ages.
In the decades that followed, I saw a lot of terrible football and some
bright moments of glory. I experienced anguish, ridicule, purple pride
and even hubris. It's been a lifelong journey, but like all journeys,
it is coming to the end.
Later today I’ll drive to Purdue for the season opener, a bizarre
Thursday night game to open the 2018 season with a conference contest.
Many times I’ve been to games at Purdue, some wins, some losses. The
enduring memory was the 1995 game, when I brought my five year old son
and his two grandfathers and the Wildcats won their first title in
fifty-nine years. It was dark and cold but the atmosphere was electric.
The home crowd cheered Mike Alstott setting new Purdue rushing records
and the entire stadium was awed by the Wildcats’ historic championship
win. I remember the pandemonium on the field after the gun. I heard
Steve Schnur approach Dave Beazley and calmly say, “Well, we did it”.
My son on my shoulders appeared for a moment on television and was seen
by my wife watching at home. It had been a crazy, improbable season of
high hopes and those hopes had just been fulfilled.
So on to Purdue, with the annual bout of preseason hope.
Its been eighteen years since the last title. The last time the
Wildcats contended seriously was thirteen years ago in 2005. This year,
like many of the years before, it looks like the pieces may be in place
for a title run. Yet questions abound. How will the defensive secondary
perform after the retirement of beloved Coach Brown and under the
guidance of Coach MacPherson? Will the offensive line find coherence in
the early part of the campaign, an elusive goal for many of the past
few seasons? Can the offense establish itself early? A decade ago, the
team identity was high octane offense and porous defense. Of late, the
identity has been a stingy defense and an all too frequently sputtering
offense in big games. Will Clayton Thorson play, how mobile will he be,
and can the offensive line protect him? Will Coach Genyk engineer a
return to dominance in special teams play?
If the pieces are in place, the schedule holds some big challenges for
the title hunt. Three key contests loom ahead: consecutive games with
Michigan and Michigan State and the potential showdown with Wisconsin.
Can the ‘Cats win one of the first two, take down the Badgers and
secure the title?
Aside from the title hunt, the big bonus is the November date with
Notre Dame. I was at the last Notre Dame contest at Dyche Stadium in
1976, and given work travel commitments in late November this will be
my last game as a season ticket holder. Will it be a win, the first
over Notre Dame in Evanston since the Cuban Missile Crisis? Will I be
able to go out on a high note?
Like I said, the annual bout of preseason hopes.
First on the agenda, though, is tonight’s opener at Purdue. So now I drive off to West Lafayette carrying my high hopes.
I am a Northwestern football season ticket holder and an alumnus of the University's College of Arts
& Sciences. Beyond these two factors, I have no affiliation
whatsoever with Northwestern University, its Department of Athletics,
its football program, its coaching staff nor its players. Nothing said
within this commentary should be construed as anything but the personal
ramblings of a Wildcat football fan. To believe otherwise is to engage