Chicago’s Big Ten Team is, based on an unscientific sampling of the people walking around O’Hare International Airport at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Chicago Bears. There were armies of people in Bears gear.
OK, fine, has to be a college team? Chicago’s Big Ten Team is . . . all of them? The Conference of Broad Shoulders is headquartered in the City of Broad Shoulders, and it shows everytime you’re here. Within 20 minutes of arriving I checked the Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Minnesota logos off my Big Ten bingo card.
At the time of this writing, I was still missing Northwestern, self-proclaimed as Chicago’s Big Ten Team. That’s very much in line with every other time I’ve been here for a Nebraska-Northwestern game. Husker fans reputation as stadium invaders is well established at this point, but in the Big Ten era seeing Ryan Field drenched in red best proves the point.
“I know that’s the m.o. for Nebraska fans,” Scott Frost said this week. “Chicago is a place that people from Nebraska live and are near. Chicago is a place that people from here would go visit. I hope there’s a lot of red in stadium.
“We’re planning on it. We’re not going to use a silent snap count, so we need Nebraska fans to show up.”
I don’t expect there to be any issue with that. As far as understated digs go, not working on a silent snap count for a conference road game ranks up there. Frost didn’t intend it as a dig. Husker fans overtaking Evanston is just reality.
Pat Fitzgerald knows it, too. Keeping Husker fans out is a problem. When he took over as Northwestern’s head coach in 2006 the Wildcats didn’t even have a season-ticket sales team. That’s been remedied, but as Husker fans have shown time and time again there is no cure for Scarlet Fever, only treatment.
And while seeing your own stadium turn red is annoying, Fitzgerald said this week it isn’t unpleasant dealing with Husker fans.
“Since we’ve played Nebraska there has been no better fan base to get to know than theirs. It is fantastic," he said. "To me, it is up there with the top in the country. From the hospitality, the way they treat our players and fans when we go out to Lincoln, it’s almost like the worst Jedi mind trick you’re ever going to go through. They’re the nicest people in the world to kind of calm you down.
“Then you go compete against a historic team and they’ve been battles. We haven’t won them all, but I think there’s a large level of mutual respect between the programs.”
While nobody may have seen this coming when the Huskers accepted a Big Ten invite at the start of the decade, it’s how it has unfolded.
“It’s weird since we’ve been in the Big Ten I’ve really gained a lot of respect for Northwestern, in basketball and football,” Nebraska’s associate athletic director for football Matt Davison told Mike Babcock this week. “They have great kids and great coaches. I love Pat Fitzgerald.”
It’s been mutually assured destruction on the field, too. Nebraska holds a 4-3 lead in the conference series and has won all three games at Ryan Field since 2011. Northwestern has won three-of-four in Lincoln, the lone loss coming on a Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp in 2013. Five of the seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
It’s not where Husker fans want to be, not where Nebraska has been most of the time either, but the dueling NUs have basically been equals on the field. You could say the same is true this year, too, with the line hovering around Northwestern -4.
And that’s where the waves of red rolling through O’Hare on a Friday morning come in. Nebraska has a big opportunity to change the trajectory of its 2018 season this Saturday. It’s not just that this team badly needs any win right now, but also that with two home games to close out October a winning streak suddenly becomes a possibility. The biggest thing the Huskers need now is a little momentum.
That’s tough to pick up on the road, unless this isn’t actually a road game at all. That has been the case in recent years when Nebraska hit Evanston and probably will be again this time.
Will it deliver the same result? That will be up to the Huskers themselves. Fans can only bring so much to the table, but Nebraska fans bring it every time the team takes to the road.
On my flight back from Wisconsin last week I was seated next to a young man in a purple Northwestern pullover. I told him “nice win” as I took my seat, referring to the Wildcats’ road victory over Michigan State the day before.
“It was a big one for the Cats,” he said, “but I’m not actually a Northwestern fan. My family is for Notre Dame. We got season tickets so we could go to that game.” The Irish visit Evanston on Nov. 3.
That’s the ultimate Nebraska fan move. The Irish fan in Wildcat clothes told me he’ll be there this week, wearing purple.
And probably surrounded by red.