Football: “You want to silence the crowd”: Northwestern embraces challenge of four road games in five weeks


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Senior wide receiver Donny Navarro III points to the sky after scoring a touchdown against Duke. Navarro and Northwestern will look to find success on the road against Maryland this weekend.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

It feels like an eternity has separated Northwestern’s first game of the 2022 campaign — a thrilling comeback victory in Ireland over Nebraska — and the Wildcats’ current stretch back home in the United States.

Fueled by the newfound optimism of a fresh season and a tad of Irish luck, NU put in a compelling performance to start the year 1-0.  But when the Cats (1-5, 1-2 Big Ten) returned to Evanston for a three-game non-conference homestand, the season’s woes took full shape. 

Nevertheless, the fact remains — NU is .500 in games away from Evanston and winless at Ryan Field, where opponents have outscored the Cats 121-68.

“We’re a team that always kind of has success when our back is against the wall,” junior running back Cam Porter said. “We love going into environments and proving people wrong.”

NU did well to prove the doubters wrong against Nebraska, but the team failed to build on its early momentum. Victories during the squad’s next five games — four of which are on the road — would go a long way in shifting that narrative.

Before the 2022 season commenced, only two Cats squads had been winless at home by mid-October, the 2003 and 2018 teams. This year’s NU team joins that list.

The 2018 Cats dropped their opening three contests at Ryan Field before defeating Nebraska in a nailbiter on Oct. 13 of that year. 15 years earlier, NU similarly dropped its first three games at home as opponents outscored the Cats 108-52 in that span. A victory against No. 20 Wisconsin on Oct. 25, 2003 broke the losing skid in Evanston.

Despite the struggles at home, both NU squads earned a bowl game bid in their respective seasons, largely because of their success away from Ryan Field. Before the win against the Badgers, the ‘03 Cats were 3-1 on the road, with the only loss coming to No. 4 Ohio State. Meanwhile in 2018, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad was a perfect 5-0 away from home.

If NU is to replicate the road triumphs of years past, ensuring the squad has a confident mentality heading into opposing atmospheres is a good place to start.

“It’s definitely exciting going in there and being outnumbered as far as fans go,” senior wide receiver Donny Navarro III said. “You kind of have to play with a little bit more of a chip on your shoulder. You want to silence the crowd. We look forward to being on the road this week.”

Though it’s considered a neutral venue, Ireland felt like a road game due to the large swaths of Cornhusker supporters, redshirt senior defensive back Jeremiah Lewis said. The battle at Penn State on Oct. 1 was another game in a hostile environment, both due to the fans and the weather. 

In a season of horrors, the two games have been the Cats’ best performances as the defense forced a combined eight turnovers. Conversely, NU has forced just two turnovers in four home games.

“We’re working against the crowd the whole game,” Lewis said of the team’s road mentality. “The best thing for us to do is to show that we can stop the run (and) limit big plays in an effort to essentially keep the crowd out of it.”

Now, NU travels to College Park to take on a Maryland squad that could be without starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who suffered a sprained MCL against Indiana last Saturday and is a game-time decision. A week later, the Cats will hit the road to face a middling Iowa Hawkeyes team which hasn’t scored more than 27 points in a game this season.

Regardless of whether Tagovailoa suits up for the Terrapins on Saturday, both contests are likely NU’s best opportunities to nab a victory this season, especially coming off of a bye week.

“Overall, we try to keep the same approach, both home and away,” Lewis said. “But playing on the road kind of gives everyone a spark.”

Elena Hubert contributed reporting. 

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex