In such a bizarre season, it’s only fitting that the center of college football in 2020 is found in America’s heartland. And so Sports Illustrated’s two college football writers set out on a (masked and socially distanced) journey to the six campuses in this Midwestern footprint. Ross Dellenger has the northern tier, trekking West to East from Evanston to South Bend to Columbus. Pat Forde is taking the southern route and going East to West, from Huntington to Cincinnati to Bloomington.
We’re rolling out two stories a day, starting Wednesday and running through Friday, as well as updates on our social media platforms, using the hashtag #MidwesternRevivalTour. Keep up to date with the entire series here.
WHY WE'RE HERE: Northwestern is 4–0, atop the Big Ten West and ranked 19th in the AP poll (but the Wildcats are No. 9 in the SI Top 10!).
SEASON HIGH POINT: Storming back from a 17-point deficit to win at Iowa 21–20 in the second game of the season.
PROGRAM ARC: Since taking over in 2006, former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald has turned this small, private school into a consistent winner, claiming eight winning seasons in 14 years—double the amount of winning years the school had (four) in the 34 years before him.
PROGRAM EDGE: Given the school’s high academic admission standards, Fitzgerald has perfected the art of doing more with less. None of his last 10 signing classes have ranked in the top 45 nationally nor have any included a single five-star recruit. Instead of speed, size and skill, his teams are built on solid fundamentals and a mistake-free, ground-and-pound offense.
ACADEMIC BRAGGING POINT: In the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings, Northwestern is No. 9, the second-highest ranking for an FBS school, only trailing Stanford.
CAMPUS ICONOGRAPHY: The Rock. This giant boulder resides in the middle of campus and serves as a sort-of billboard for campus groups, its exterior often projecting colorfully painted messages.
PLACE YOU MUST VISIT: Mustard’s Last Stand. How can a hotdog be so good? And yet it is.
EVANSTON, Ill. — The pickle is right on top, and that’s fine. For this. That’s fine.
The Chicago Dog at Mustard’s Last Stand is iconic and you wouldn’t want to change it, even if you’re not accustomed to eating a hotdog with a pickle the size of the actual hotdog on top of the hotdog. But here we are. This is how it’s done here, at this small shack in the shadow of Northwestern’s football stadium, Ryan Field.
For more than 50 years, Mustard’s has been serving hotdogs, ice cream and fries to the good people of this northern Chicago suburb. Snow, ice and a pandemic (Mustard’s has a walk-up window) haven’t slowed this place down. It has even survived despite the atrocities that used to unfurl across the street at the Wildcats' football stadium.
Starting in 1972, Northwestern reeled off 23 consecutive losing seasons, a stretch that also included a 34-game losing streak—still, to this day, the longest in major college football history. This is known as the “dark age,” says Jay Sharman, a Northwestern alum and founder of a popular sports blog that documents the Wildcats.
The fact that last year’s 3–9 season—its worst since 2002—is now referred to here as an aberration and not the norm is evidence of the dramatic, wholesale change at this place. Just when some might have thought Northwestern was reverting to its gloomy mean, the Wildcats have started this bizarre COVID-19-impacted season 4–0, ranked in the top 25 and, for now, atop the Big Ten West ahead of a collision with Wisconsin (2–0) on Saturday.
“We can’t have a down year like last season or it becomes, ‘Oh, the cute little Northwestern again,’” Sharman bemoans.
The Wildcats have returned to being that pesky team that buzzes around Big Ten powerhouses, occasionally biting them and regularly beating the lower- to mid-tier teams in the league. They embody their coach, a former Northwestern linebacker, who has turned this place into a consistent winner with a recipe that the 2020 team cannot possibly replicate any better: a fundamentally sound crew of three-star prospects who play smart but physical defense and use a grinding, mistake-free offense to lull opponents to sleep, disproving any notion that an explosive offense is necessary to win these days.
This team, in fact, is extending one of the most steady characteristics of a Pat Fitzgerald–coached squad—winning tight games. The Cats have won three of their last four games by a single score and have now claimed 48 one-possession victories since 2006—tied with Navy for the most in the FBS during that span.
But in regard to the 2020 Wildcats, the most important figure is zero. As in, zero legitimate positive COVID-19 tests. Since beginning daily testing in late September, the Northwestern football program has endured no positives, the school says. While other programs are pausing activities because of outbreaks (three did so last week just in the SEC), Northwestern is cruising toward two months of COVID-free football.
People around here have one reaction to that.
“Knock on wood,” Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald treats COVID-19 as another opponent that his team must beat. After each game this year, he’s addressed the virus, calming a rowdy locker room and warning them not to partake in celebrations around town.
“We have two games today,” he said after the Wildcats beat Nebraska in an afternoon kickoff, “Nebraska and COVID.”
Before the season began, the NU staff engaged with player families, encouraging them not to physically interact with their children. The normal celebratory embracing outside the locker room after a win? They’re out.
“It’s an eight-week sacrifice,” the coach says.
Fitzgerald is sacrificing too. He has 50 family members who usually attend home games. They have not been invited this year. Fitzgerald’s own son has received the message loud and clear. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Brendan Fitzgerald’s sixth-grade teacher asked students to write about their greatest fears.
Brendan wrote, “I’m worried about giving my dad COVID.”
Northwestern, as a university, is battling the virus quite well, says Morton Schapiro, the school president who also happens to chair the Big Ten’s highest policy-making body of chancellors and presidents. The school has built somewhat of an invisible bubble around campus. Underclassmen are not attending in-person classes, but NU is still testing regularly. About 1,400 tests are administered every day. The school’s latest five-day, rolling average is five positives, Schapiro says.
This quaint college campus along the banks of Lake Michigan is a near clean zone of health while all around them COVID numbers are soaring. Chicago’s Cook County has the nation’s second-most confirmed cases, fourth-most deaths and a 15% positivity rate.
In fact, Chicago itself is on the brink of another complete shutdown. About 20 minutes south of Northwestern’s campus, the streets in downtown of the nation’s third-largest city are mostly empty. Shops are boarded up. Luxury hotels have enough vacancy that their rates are nearing the $100 mark. Many restaurants are closed or only allowing outdoor dining, a difficult requirement here because of the weather. For example, Tuesday morning brought a wind chill factor of 18 degrees.
Meanwhile on NU’s campus, the positivity rate hovers around 1%. In football, it’s zero.
“We’re 4–0 on the playing field and undefeated with COVID,” says Schapiro.
In downtown Evanston, a few blocks away from NU’s campus and just up from Mustard’s Last Stand, the economy is in similar shape as it is in the Windy City. On a chilly Monday evening, John Enright, owner of Bluestone Restaurant, a Northwestern staple, has gathered with friends to begin polishing off the eatery’s draft beer selection. Why?
“I might be shutting down completely soon,” he says glumly.
Delivery and takeout orders aren’t enough to keep Bluestone afloat. Game days that used to produce more than $25,000 in a single day are now generating less than one-quarter of that.
Seated inside his empty restaurant, Enright surveys the space, his imagination running wild over a COVID-free season with Northwestern undefeated and unbeaten Wisconsin coming to town.
“We would have had a record month,” he says.
Because of Northwestern’s approach to the virus, the school finds itself with the best start since 1996, Fitzgerald’s senior year as linebacker. But there’s more to this story other than avoiding the virus. Free agency was kind to the Wildcats. The new guys are having a significant impact.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, isn’t necessarily prolific, but he’s proficient—a 67% completion rate, 723 yards passing and another 122 yards on the ground, with seven touchdowns. Tight end John Raine, an FAU grad transfer, has 11 catches for 112 yards, and Kent State transfer Derek Adams, the starting punter, has positioned his team well, with seven of his 20 punts downed inside the 20. And don’t forget about Peter Skoronski, a true freshman starting at left tackle.
Lastly, there’s new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, whose unit this season hasn’t been explosive but has been consistent. In fact, the Cats have scored at least 20 points in each of their first four games against Big Ten opponents for the first time in 2012, and they’re solid in the red zone, ranking third in scoring within the 20s.
But in reality, this team has been buoyed by a salty defense that ranks 11th nationally, averaging 301 yards a game. They’ve allowed just 10 points in the second half this season and are giving up a total of 14 points a game, the fewest in the first four Big Ten games since 1995, when coach Gary Barnett revived the program with a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“I said this on our air last week,” says Dave Revsine, a Northwestern alum and a studio host at Big Ten Network. “The aberration was last year, not this year. It’s been a really good program for a while. I don’t think people are stunned like people are in the same way that they are stunned like Indiana.”
Northwestern is part of a Midwestern resurgence of sorts. Among FBS teams that have played at least three games, 12 remain undefeated, six of which reside in a four-state Midwestern footprint. Of them all—Indiana, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Marshall and Ohio State—Northwestern is the smallest school, with an enrollment of less than 9,000.
It’s small, private and expensive (tuition is in the $50,000 ballpark). It’s the Big Ten brain school. It’s just, well, different.
“I was walking through the science and engineering library one day and I recognized the Northwestern quarterback,” says Kevin Leonard, in his 40th year working at the Northwestern University archives. “He was poring over a big, thick book of equations. I thought, ‘Holy cow!’”
There was a time here when the university resisted the notion that sports could help the school drive revenue and enrollment. In 1981, in fact, former NU president Robert H. Strotz, in the midst of the football team’s 34-game losing skid, trumpeted, “I think having a bad football team can help academic standards.”
Oh, how have things changed.
The university has spent roughly a half a billion dollars in athletic facilities upgrades over the last several years, much of it driven by private funds and donations. That includes a 2-year-old, $260 million shimmering lakeside football facility that might be the best in the country.
“The thought that that piece of property would have been given to athletics 20 years ago,” Revsine says, “you would have been laughed out of Evanston.”
The school’s current president, Schapiro, is a rabid sports fan. Before the pandemic, he eschewed the normal practice of hosting a small watch party in the presidential suite, as many university executives do. He watched the game from the sidelines and is a mainstay in the locker room before and after games.
New Jersey-bred, Schapiro grew up on the Jets and the Mets. He’s a big New England Patriots fan, too, having a close bond with the Kraft family.
He’s a big enough sports fan that during a recent interview he rambled off college football’s latest top 10 rankings, Northwestern’s depth chart and some of the Big Ten’s best players. He compared Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to Aaron Rodgers and said Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa “looks like the second coming.”
These are things a school president doesn’t say. Many of them cannot name their starting quarterback let alone the entire offensive two-deep. In fact, Schapiro’s connection to the football team assisted in his decision making on whether to play football this fall. He was one of the Big Ten presidents who reversed his decision not to play based on the advice of doctors.
“You know these players and you don’t want them to get sick. Because I’m so involved with our athletic programs, it made me more cautious,” he says. “They’re not numbers and stats. That’s Chris. That’s Kyle. These are people I know.”
But enough about the virus. Big Ten football is at the halfway point of the season. This weekend’s games, Wisconsin vs. Northwestern and Indiana vs. Ohio State, could determine which teams meet in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.
And here’s little Northwestern, right in the middle of the race, unlike the aberration—not the norm—of last season.
“I have watched Indiana,” Schapiro says. “They’re real. I don’t know if it’s going to be us against Indiana or us vs. Ohio State [in Indianapolis] or Wisconsin vs. Ohio State or Indiana, but you’ve got to go through Evanston and Bloomington.”
If that sounds weird—“Evanston and Bloomington”—it is.
“In a COVID year,” Schapiro quips, “it’s crazy.”