Football: Wildcats look to take road mojo to Michigan State


Daily file photo by Sophie Mann

Flynn Nagel returns a punt during Northwestern’s Oct. 1 game at Iowa. The sophomore’s return set up the Wildcats at the opposing five-yard line, leading to an early touchdown.

Tim Balk, Managing Editor


Maybe it’s because Ryan Field so often feels like a road venue, its north stands filled with the scarlet of Ohio State or the maize and blue of Michigan. Maybe it’s because conference foes so often schedule their homecoming games when Northwestern visits, a time when their squads may not be at their most focused.

Or maybe it’s just something simpler. Good preparation, perhaps, or an attitude amenable to shutting up other teams’ fans.

Whatever the reason, over the past few seasons, NU has done most of its best work on the road.

In 2014, it took a visit to University Park, Pennsylvania, to shake the Wildcats out of an early season stupor. Sitting at 1-2, NU blasted a heavily-favored Penn State team 29-6, putting a damper on the Nittany Lions’ homecoming. The Cats continued to build their reputation as road warriors later that fall, squeaking out a 43-40 overtime upset of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and then returning to the state a week later to pound favored Purdue by 24 points.

The beat went on for NU last fall; the Cats returned to Evanston with road victories at Duke, Nebraska and Wisconsin. When the Cats went down to Soldier Field to take on Illinois, they won there too.

NU’s first road game in 2016 was also its best performance of the young season: a 38-31 win at Iowa two weeks ago. After the season-stabilizing win, these Cats (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) head to Michigan State on Saturday to take on the Spartans (2-3, 0-2).

The defending Big Ten champions are ferocious at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State has lost at home just three times since (guess who?) the Cats beat them there in 2012. And even though two of those losses for the Spartans have come this fall, the Wildcats face a real challenge against one of the Big Ten’s top programs at one of the league’s most hostile environments.

For the Cats to notch another big win, they’ll have to keep the good times going on the road. Going into the weekend, NU has won six of its last seven true road games.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said during the bye week after the Iowa game that he researched how other teams approach their road games, and his team models its preparation off other programs.

“I think we do a good job preparing our guys for playing on the road,” Fitzgerald said. “Any time you play on the road it’s critically important that you start fast … and then you know that (the) home team is going to respond.”

Against Iowa, the Cats followed that blueprint, using a 47-yard punt return from Flynn Nagel two minutes into the game to set up an easy five-yard touchdown drive that gave NU an early 7-0 lead.

The big play from the sophomore wide receiver set the tone for the afternoon, just as a first quarter interception by Nick VanHoose, which also set up a touchdown, set the tone for the Cats’ 13-7 win at Wisconsin last November.

“Nothing really changes for us (in road games),” Nagel said. “It’s just that, going into the game, I think everybody’s prepared, ready.”

Against the Hawkeyes, that preparation produced a fast start. The last time NU visited the state of Michigan, it did not.

When the Cats played Michigan last year, the Wolverines scored on the opening play, taking NU’s opening kickoff 96 yards to the house. Michigan went on to win 38-0.

To avoid a similar outcome when NU takes on Michigan State 65 miles northwest of last year’s blowout, a quick start would be huge. The Cats enter the week off a bye, so they should be all the more prepared for the contest against the physical Spartans.

And, of course, it’s Homecoming Weekend at Michigan State.

Senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who helped ruin Iowa’s homecoming by setting an NU single-game record with four sacks, said he is looking forward to the chance to knock off another Big Ten team on the road.

“You’re going to Iowa, Michigan State … 70-, 60,000 fans just screaming, they want your head off. You kind of use that as motivation,” Odenigbo said. “When you make a big play and hear the crowd be silent, it’s the best feeling out there.”

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