Dienhart: Is this the biggest game in NU history?

The excitement seemingly has been building since the spring for Saturday’s Ohio State at Northwestern game. Oh, who am I kidding? The buildup actually began the moment last season ended.

Back then, we all could see the delicious possibilities. The Buckeyes had a loaded roster for a team that was coming off a 12-0 debut under Urban Meyer. Northwestern also had lots of veteran talent back from a 10-win team that was coming off the program’s first bowl victory since the 1948 season.

Every Big Ten watcher circled October 5 on their calendar, anticipating the Buckeyes’ trip to Northwestern in what could be a preview of the Big Ten championship game.

The excitement seems to build with each passing day for a tilt that will be played in prime time on national television along the banks of Lake Michigan. It’s No. 3 Ohio State, winners of a national-best 17 games in a row, vs. No. 15 Northwestern, which is 14-3 in its last 17 games.

That has made many wonder: Is this the biggest Northwestern game in, well, ever?

I think it is.

First, it’s important to remember that NU was college football’s punching bag for about a quarter century before becoming relevant in the 1995 season, when Gary Barnett took the “Purple to Pasadena” behind the spirited play of try-hard linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.

[ MORE: @BTNStatsGuys: Ohio State passing attack vs. NU pass defense ]

There were some big games for Northwestern in the black-and-white era. And No. 21 NU’s wild 54-51 win over No. 12 Michigan during the march to the 2000 Big Ten crown was a big one. But none seemingly can compare to some of the stages the Wildcats have played on from 1995 to date, given the scrutiny, focus and intensity of modern-day football and its massive stakes.

In fact, it was in 1995 when Northwestern last played in a game that can come close to matching the magnitude of this Saturday’s clash with OSU.

No doubt, the jaw-dropping 17-15 season-opening win at No. 9 Notre Dame on September 2, 1995, was big. That was the proverbial big bang that set all of this in motion, and it’s why we are standing here salivating and hyperventilating over this Buckeye-Wildcat affair. But the contest under the Golden Dome lacked hype because, well, everyone in the free world thought the Fighting Irish would rout the Wildcats.

 Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

No, to find the biggest game before this Saturday’s coming contest, you have to dig deeper into the 1995 season.

It was November 4, when Penn State came to Evanston and an ABC national TV audience tuned in to watch this purple peculiarity.

The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 12. Northwestern was No. 6. By the time of this meeting, America had fallen in love with the Wildcats. This was more than a football story. This was a human interest story, a living and breathing fairytale come to life about a long-suffering sad sack that was transforming from a big loser into a real-life success story we all wanted to hug and celebrate.

How bad had it gotten? From 1979-82, NU had lost a national record 34 games in a row, which made the Wildcats’ rise from the ashes all that much more incredible.

The Wildcats entered the game 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the Big Ten. And NU delivered a 21-10 win. The victory was NU’s seventh in a row, the school’s longest winning skein since 1936. But more vital: The victory meant the Wildcats remained in contention for their first Rose Bowl berth since the 1948 season.

The next week, NU running back Darnell Autry was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “The Real Deal” blazed across the image.

The win over Penn State and iconic coach Joe Paterno served as final validation for Northwestern. Work remained, with a visit from Iowa and trip to Purdue left. But there was no way the Wildcats were losing to either of those teams—and they didn’t, taking 31-20 and 23-8 wins.

In 1995, the Wildcats went on to win the Big Ten for the first time in 59 years and went to the Rose Bowl. It was the stuff of Hollywood, a celluloid dream that the 2013 Wildcats hope to repeat. And it all starts Saturday night.

There’s simply no downplaying this game. It’s huge, for both teams, and everyone knows it. You’ll be able to tell by the lines at Mustard’s Last Stand near Ryan Field.

Or, better yet, by the overall atmosphere around the stadium. ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town to give the area in and around Ryan Field a rock concert feeling–an AC/DC rock concert feeling, to be exact.

“We’re playing a team that’s undefeated since Coach [Urban] Meyer has been there,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “[They're] very well-coached, got great talent, they execute [and] make explosive plays.

“I think we’re pretty darn talented, too.”

Talented enough to top mighty Ohio State for the first time since 2004? We’ll find out Saturday night.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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6 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (6 Comments)
jonathanwhodges on 10/1/2013 @ 3:54pm EDT Said:

Note: in the 1995 season College GameDay actually came prior to the 11/11/95 game vs. Iowa (not the 11/4/95 game vs. PSU). GameDay was actually moved inside (Welsh-Ryan arena lobby) since there was a large snowstorm the night before the game.

Michael on 10/1/2013 @ 4:03pm EDT Said:

Everyone who knows me knows that I bleed purple. But I’m also a realist. Ohio State is just too big, too fast and too strong for NU. This game will not even be close.

Kyle on 10/1/2013 @ 4:51pm EDT Said:

If Venric Mark returns. I believe Northwestern will make it a game. OSU’s secondary took a hit with the loss of star safety Christian Bryant and Roby got beat by a great WR in Abberderis, so Northwestern with it’s great passing ability can score on OSU’s defense.

Tom on 10/2/2013 @ 12:51pm EDT Said:

It’s a big game for NU, but not even close to being as “big” as any of the games down the stretch in 1995. Those late-season games with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip on the line mattered much, much more than any early-season Big 10 game will ever be. Any win over OSU would be huge and memorable regardless of what happens the rest of the season. But, in the new era of divisions and a Big Ten playoff game, NU could get crushed in this game and still go on to win the Big Ten championship. Conversely, NU could win a thriller and still lose several more games later in the year. Games in September and October set the stage, games in November and December are what make. So, big game? Yes. The biggest? Nope.

kyle on 10/2/2013 @ 2:42pm EDT Said:

People should realize this isnt about the importance of the game as the magnitude of it. of those 1995 games… how many of them we prime time spot light full of hype against a top ranked opponent?

David McEneanet on 10/3/2013 @ 3:50pm EDT Said:

I’m a huge Buckeye fan. OSU has the talent to make this game lopsided in a hurry. But i respect NU and they scare me more than Wicky/UM. They are just a very balanced team. They key to this game will be the start. If tOSU jumps on them early, it will be long game for the people who bleed purple.

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