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Northwestern taking next step in football reinvention vs. Ohio State

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kain Colter looks to help lead the Wildcats to their first victory over the Buckeyes since 2004.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Big Ten media members repeatedly asked the same question, and Pat Fitzgerald's response never changed. "What are your expectations this season?" reporters inquired at conference media days in July. "The expectation is to win championships," Northwestern's coach replied time and again. Just a few years ago, the thought of the Wildcats winning a Big Ten championship would have seemed far-fetched. But as No. 16 Northwestern prepares to host No. 4 Ohio State at Ryan Field on Saturday night, it feels like a distinct possibility.

In the preseason, Northwestern was viewed as one of a handful of contenders in a crowded Big Ten Legends Division. Most pundits picked the Wildcats to finish third or fourth, behind Nebraska, Michigan and, in some instances, Michigan State. Yet as the calendar turns to October -- and both the Huskers and Wolverines evinced major flaws against lowly competition -- the race appears to have a new frontrunner.

Northwestern is 4-0 and with wins over Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. No one would mistake the Wildcats for a national title threat, but they've done enough over their first four games to make this week's matchup with the unbeaten Buckeyes appointment viewing.

"I'm not going to lie, this is a game I circled on my schedule," quarterback Kain Colter said on Monday. "They're a great program, great tradition. I guess we get to match ourselves up and see where we're at."

That statement rings true in more ways than one. The defense, led by senior defensive end Tyler Scott, will be asked to shut down an explosive Ohio State attack fronted by quarterback Braxton Miller. Junior safety Ibraheim Campbell, who ranks second in the Big Ten with three interceptions, and middle linebacker Damien Proby, who has emerged as one of the most reliable, least heralded defenders in the league, will look to help slow a Buckeyes' offense that's currently averaging more than 500 yards per game.

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On the other side of the ball, coordinator Mick McCall will look to maximize production out of one the most versatile attacks in the conference. Northwestern features an aberrantly successful two-quarterback system and a dynamic ground game. The latter could be even more dangerous now that senior running back Venric Mark, an All-America punt returner and second-team All-Big Ten running back in 2012 who has sat out most of this season with a lower-body injury, is set to return. With Colter under center (quarterback "1B" Trevor Siemian is used more often on long passing plays), Mark thrived in the zone read last season. He'll look to reprise that role on Saturday. "I got my mojo back," Mark said after practice on Tuesday.

Then there's the fan base. Northwestern exceeded its modern-era record for season ticket sales this season and is on pace to double the number of tickets sold in 2009, one year before athletic director Jim Phillips spearheaded the launch of the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" marketing campaign. The Wildcats' student support group, Wildside, has witnessed a surge of interest over the past 12 months and recently unveiled a student tailgate called "Fitzerland." Most notably, ESPN's College GameDay will air live from Evanston on Saturday morning, marking the first time college football's premier pregame show has visited Northwestern's campus since 1995 (GameDay broadcast from Wrigley Field for the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry game in 2010).

Students across campus are buzzing about the game. The athletic department has even chipped in. The atmosphere is unlike anything Northwestern's players have previously experienced.

"Everyone texts you, you see the tweets," junior wide receiver Tony Jones said. "Even just walking around on campus, everyone is just so excited about this game."

Still, for most of the past half-century, beating Ohio State has been close to impossible for Northwestern. The Buckeyes are 59-14-1 all-time against the Wildcats, and they've defeated Northwestern in 33 of their last 35 meetings -- including 23 wins by 20 points or more -- dating back to 1964.

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The teams' last matchup came on Nov. 8, 2008, a 45-10 Ohio State rout in Evanston. Scott, now the Big Ten's co-leader in sacks, was sitting in the bleachers that day as a prospect. "That's when I received my full scholarship -- my offer," said Scott, a Warren, Ohio, native. "It was a bittersweet day, growing up [a Buckeyes fan], but I was excited for the opportunity."

Things have drastically changed since then. Before 2008, Northwestern had registered just four winning seasons since 1971. It has now accomplished that feat in four of the past five years and gone to a school-record five consecutive bowl games, including winning its first bowl game since 1949 in the 2013 Gator Bowl.

"Our vision was to come in here and basically change the program around," said senior receiver Rashad Lawrence. "Build off what the older guys were building off of, take what they taught and keep it going, make everyone proud back home -- just prove to the country that Northwestern can be an elite team."

Echoed former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett, a game analyst for the Sports USA Radio Network, who will call Saturday night's game: "I don't think there's any question. I think [former coach] Randy Walker took [the talent] to another level, and I think Pat has done an even better job that that. From a talent standpoint, they should be in the position every year to be a team that competes and finishes in the top third of that conference."

Bringing in better recruits is one part of the equation, but Northwestern's steady transformation from mid-tier Big Ten outfit into viable conference contender -- a team that's widely regarded as Ohio State's biggest obstacle (before the Michigan game in November) to a second consecutive undefeated regular season -- can't be explained so simply. Last year, the university's board of trustees approved fundraising for a $220 million lakefront athletic facility. Fitzgerald, who rebuffed overtures about Michigan's head-coaching vacancy after the 2010 season, was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension through 2020 that increased his salary to roughly $2.2 million in 2011. According to data obtained by USA Today, that makes Fitzgerald Northwestern's highest-paid employee.

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Then there's the uptick in local support. When Northwestern steps under the lights on Saturday night, Wildcats fans will be well represented in the Ryan Field bleachers. While there will be plenty of Ohio State fans in attendance, athletic department officials project a 70-30 split between Wildcats and Buckeyes supporters. Whereas in previous years opposing Big Ten contingents would snatch up tickets on the secondary market and turn Ryan Field into a "neutral-field advantage" -- at last season's home game against Nebraska, there were so many screaming Huskers fans that Northwestern quarterbacks were forced to use a soft count in the second half -- that shouldn't be the case in 2013 thanks to a change in the school's season ticket policy.

Onlookers will be interested to see whether Northwestern's early-season buzz is warranted. A win would likely vault the Wildcats into the top 10 of the polls and confirm their status as a Big Ten championship contender. A loss, fair or not, might lead many to wonder whether Northwestern is overrated.

"What would occur if they lose, naturally, is that people would say, 'Well I guess it's the same old Northwestern,'" said Dave Eanet, the play-by-play voice of Northwestern football for WGN Radio in Chicago since 1996. "I don't think that's accurate, but I think that's how a lot of people would look at it."

This is the perception that Northwestern continues to combat. Longtime fans know it; they remember how national observers perceived the Wildcats team that went to the Rose Bowl after 1995 season, three years before posting consecutive three-win seasons. "I think in '95, they [Northwestern] were seen as a fluke," Eanet said. "They were seen as a great story, but that was a program that not too long before had lost 34 games in a row."

Northwestern is slowly remaking its image from an academic-minded school that can't consistently win big-time football games. A victory over Ohio State on Saturday would accelerate that shift -- and help Fitzgerald tug the Wildcats closer to his goal of winning a Big Ten title.

"They got athletes all over the board, and they're really well coached," said Colter, "but I feel like we've got athletes that can match up and we're really well coached. It's going to be a good challenge, and something I'm looking forward to."

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