Sights set on defending champs (Football)

Tania Ganguli

NU coach Randy Walker doesn’t deny that it felt pretty good to notch a victory in the Cats’ final non-conference game Saturday against Duke.

But that’s all in the past.

“You’re never as good nor as bad as you think you are,” Walker said. “We will be tested dramatically this week.”

As the Wildcats walked off the field at Duke, their attention was already focused on this Saturday’s game at Ohio State — in their celebration, coaches and players alike shouted about getting ready to face the defending national champions.

Playing the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, will certainly be a dramatic departure from NU’s nonconference campaign. The real work begins with a test from their first Big Ten opponent.

“It’s not going to get any tougher anywhere else down the schedule,” senior running back Jason Wright said. “We all came here to play against the best, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Two years ago the Northwestern football team headed into Ohio Stadium, better known as the Horseshoe, awestruck and it showed in their performance — the Cats were never in the game and lost, 38-20. Walker attributed the loss to a lack of poise from the veteran-laden team.

Since then the Buckeyes won a national championship and renovations took away the famous shape, but the Cats hope to regain the confidence they didn’t have two years ago.

For linebacker Patt Durr, that means getting past first impressions of the monstrous stadium. To help with that the team will be going to the stadium Friday before the game to see what they’re up against.

“You want to get that whole awe phase out of the way,” Durr said. “It’s like the Colosseum in ‘Gladiator.'”

The grandeur of the stadium won’t be lost on NU players like cornerback Jeff Backes and offensive lineman Zach Strief. Growing up in Ohio, they both lived in its shadow — Backes was only a 10-minute drive from the stadium.

During his childhood, Walker, also an Ohio native, saw the Buckeyes as larger than life.

“When your hometown heroes go on to Ohio State, it was bigger than anything else, so I grew up a big Ohio State fan,” Walker said.

Approaching the game, Backes and Strief view the Buckeyes with a more level head. Playing high school football in Ohio also means they know some of what they’re up against. Backes played with Ohio State defensive end Simon Fraser in high school and Strief remembers playing with him in an all-star game.

“When you know these guys on a personal level, they’re not just names on a roster anymore or just people you’ve heard about, they’re actual people,” Strief said. “To think of them as more than ordinary guys is just unneccesary.”

For Backes playing against old friends means there are “a lot of bragging rights at stake.”

For the last 23 years those bragging rights have belonged to the Buckeyes. Last year the Cats stayed close for much of the game before falling 27-16 — a game which Wright felt proved they were “capable of playing with anyone.”

After proving they’re capable of playing with the cellar dwellars of the ACC and Big 12, a win at the Shoe will get NU’s Big Ten season started on the right foot.