Unlike so many stadiums around college football, Ryan Field has rarely been synonymous with “electric.”
With a capacity of 47,130, it pales in comparison to most Big Ten stadiums, including the Big House in Michigan and Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, both of which hold more than 100,000 fans.
Ryan Field will never be the Big House. It can’t be. Northwestern is the Big Ten’s only private school and has an undergraduate enrollment of only 8,943. Nebraska, the conference’s second-smallest school, has an undergraduate enrollment of 18,955.
Many NU alumni leave the Chicago area after graduating – whereas many graduates of the conference’s state schools stay in-state after graduation – and the school is located in a saturated sports market, leaving potential Wildcats fans with plenty of places to go besides Ryan Field. Chicago has a lot more to do on a Saturday night than Lincoln, Iowa City or Ann Arbor might offer.
Despite the athletic department’s efforts and marketing slogans – we all know by now who “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” is – Ryan Field will never have a top college football atmosphere and it will likely continue to endure the “high school stadium” jokes from the rest of the Big Ten.
But as we saw Saturday against Michigan, Ryan Field can still be electric.
Saturday night was a showcase of sorts for the NU program. The Michigan game was NU’s only sellout of the year so far and will likely continue to be its only sellout of the season. It was a night game against the No. 12 team in the nation that aired in prime time on national television.
Apart from the Wrigley Field game last season, it’s the most exposure NU has received in quite awhile. And while the Wildcats failed to showcase their play on the field very well – Michigan scored 28 unanswered points en route to a 42-24 win – the fans gave the country a taste of Ryan Field at its finest.
For the first time in years, Ryan Field was a spectacle reminiscent of big-time college football everywhere. As safety Brain Peters led the Wildcats out onto the field with an American flag in hand, I got goosebumps, just as I do during the “Jump Around” at Wisconsin, a whiteout at Penn State or the playing of “In Heaven There is no Beer” at Iowa.
That’s as good a measure of electric as you’ll find.
“I’d like to thank our great fans tonight for the support, especially our students,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “It was absolutely an outstanding environment. We thank them and expect it moving forward and we’ll see them back in a few weeks for homecoming.”
Now, the name of the game is consistency. Just like the team must be with its play, the fans must be more consistent with their support.
Northwestern’s next home game, a night matchup with Penn State, is Homecoming and represents another rare chance for the Wildcats to put on a showcase for the nation.
Ryan Field will never be the biggest stadium in the Big Ten, nor will it be the loudest or most intimidating. But despite its size, Ryan Field can have an amazing atmosphere on game day, and it’s up to the fans to make that happen again on.
Sports writer Kevin Trahan covers the Wildcats for Scout.com.
He can be reached at [email protected]