Warren: It’s time to treat Northwestern with the respect it has earned as one of the Big Ten’s best

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


The narrative of Northwestern as the perennial Big Ten underdog, as the little engine that could, as a fun-but-not-real contender, as intelligent yet physically underwhelming, as a cute Cinderella story and nothing more, is dead.

The storyline should have run its course years ago, but Pat Fitzgerald and the “Fighting Rece Davises” finally buried it Saturday when the Wildcats defeated No. 10 Wisconsin at Ryan Field to take control of the Big Ten West and put itself right in the middle of the College Football Playoff picture.

“Everybody thinks that we are just a smart school,” senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV said. “Forget all that. We need to get our respect right now…After this game, I feel like we should get it right now.”

For years, the idea that NU was some minnow in the pond of Midwest college football was misguided, yet persisted like a bad rash.

Since 2015, the Cats have been quietly showcasing their talents in the Big Ten arena. They are 32-17 in conference play during that span, a record tied with Penn State and Iowa for fourth-best in the Big Ten. The only teams above them are Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State. NU has played in four bowl games and won three. It hasn’t lost the Land of Lincoln Trophy. And, if the Cats close out the season continuing at this pace, NU will have made two appearances in the Big Ten title game in three seasons.

The only other teams with on-paper resumes’ more impressive in the conference are Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. And every year, those teams are comfortably slotted in the top 25 at the beginning of the season, while NU fights to even receive votes. When those teams win, it’s because they are better. And when they lose, it’s never because the other team won. It’s because they lost.

Because of preconceived notions based on the historical struggles of the program, the Cats never get those benefits of the doubt. This entire season has been an example of that, with no week illustrating that more than this past one.

Most sportsbooks had Wisconsin as at least a touchdown favorite. According to Darren Rovell, 80 percent of bettors at William Hill placed their money on the Badgers. Northwestern entered ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll, behind mid-majors Coastal Carolina and Marshall and two-loss Iowa State and Oklahoma. College Gameday went to Norman, Oklahoma over Evanston.

The biggest sign of disrespect came from ESPN’s Joey Galloway, who became Public Enemy No. 1 in the Cats locker room after his comments on an episode of College Football Live.

“I’ve been watching Northwestern play, and honestly, they’ve got a bunch of Rece Davises out there running around. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world,” he said, invoking the host of College Gameday.

I don’t know how you watch any Northwestern’s first four games this season and saw a bunch of “Rece Davises.” Isaiah Bowser and the rushing attack knocked over the Maryland defense like a bowling ball. Linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin combined for 34 total tackles against Iowa. Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees shaked-and-baked all over Nebraska. Greg Newsome locked up one of the best receivers in the country in Purdue’s David Bell.

Every position group has players with All-Big Ten potential. This team may even have a few All-American contenders. If those are Rece Davises, then I guess I don’t know college football.

“That really ticked our guys off, I’m not gonna lie to you,” Fitzgerald said. “It was, I thought, incredibly disrespectful, but that is what it is. It’s not the first time.”

NU has been slighted like that for years. Those slights become bulletin board material — or, as Fitzgerald said postgame, “extra fuel in the rocket” — and many times the Cats prove the doubters wrong, only for them to doubt again.

That works for NU. Junior cornerback Greg Newsome II said the “underdog” label motivates them to no end. And being handed that designation game after game only adds flames to the fire.

But it’s time to recognize the Cats for what they are.

Two years ago, my esteemed colleague and friend Ella Brockway wrote about the 2013 College Gameday contest versus Ohio State and how, at that time, Northwestern was knocking on the door of national relevance.

“On that night (in 2013,) the college football world turned its eyes to Evanston, and the perennial, under-the-radar underdogs sat on the brink of not just national recognition, but national validation as a program that could compete in and potentially win big games,” she wrote.

The story was published a few days before Drew Luckenbaugh kicked NU to an overtime victory over Nebraska. It was the second of seven straight conference wins that elevated the Cats to the 2018 Big Ten title game.

Leading up to that monumental game, the question of entering that door loomed once again. It seemed like NU was maybe, just maybe, about to step in. But after losing to Ohio State, the discussion was tabled.

There is no debate anymore. Whether anyone answered the door or not, NU has barged its way into the national playoff conversation.

It isn’t the Dark Ages of Wildcat football anymore. It’s an NU Golden Age, and it’s time people recognize that.

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Twitter: @thepeterwarren