Game Day Observations: Northwestern
Our football staff packed up and hit the road to Northwestern for this weekend’s last-second heartbreaker. Though our spirits were crushed, our morale remained high thanks to Chicago’s bright lights and Ryan Field’s stunning views. Relive this weekend through the eyes of our well-traveled staff.
Ryan Field’s scenery is breathtaking. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some beautiful stadiums throughout my life, many of which are unique in their own right. I’ve never experienced anything quite like Northwestern’s Ryan Field, however. The stadium itself gave off a sort of high school vibe, and that’s no knock. Picture a prominent powerhouse Texas high school stadium, and throw in about 15,000 extra seats. But it’s the scenery encompassing the stadium that separated Ryan Field from the rest — Lake Michigan to the left, and the Chicago skyline to the right. From our position in the press box, it seemed as if we were on top of the world as we looked out into the massive body of water standing just miles away. Beaver Stadium might be an icon, but the views that come with it simply cannot compare to the sights that graced our eyes in Evanston.
Records were broken, which was fun to watch. It’s not every game you get to witness long-standing school records get broken, and lucky for us, we were able to witness two. After bringing Northwestern backup quarterback Zack Oliver to the turf for sack No. 15.5, Carl Nassib shattered linebacker Larry Kubin’s single-season sack record. The sheer brilliance of Nassib’s play in 2015 is hard to put into words, especially when you consider the fact that he never started a single game up until this year. It’s just another milestone for the prolific pass rusher, and surely won’t be his last. Nassib’s accomplishments have been well documented throughout the season, as have Saquon Barkley’s. But with his seventh rushing touchdown of the season, Barkley tied the school record for most rushing touchdowns in a season by a freshman — a record that’s stood since 1983. Putting those records in perspective adds to their already radiant luster. Consider the players that have walked through the tunnel of Beaver Stadium, and think about how Barkley and Nassib are the ones to best those marks. Though the end result was unsatisfactory to say the least, at least we witnessed a bit of history.
Penn State dropped too many passes. Drops were prevalent throughout Saturday’s contest, and unfortunately for the Lions, inclement weather was not to blame. A number of receivers — most notably Mike Gesicki and Kyle Carter — fell victim to the drops, failing to capitalize on a number of opportunity to advance the chains and ultimately help the Lions leave Evanston victorious. Christian Hackenberg did all he could to generate momentum early on despite being flushed out of the pocket throughout the first half, but his attempts went to no avail as his targets consistently failed to make plays. The case of Mike Gesicki might be a larger issue, but little things like catching routine passes is a major facet of winning football, and it’s something Penn State needs to focus on if it plans on winning its final two contests.
The stadium is basically in the middle of a neighborhood. Literally, there was one clothing store across the street, and residential houses surrounded that building. To get to the stadium, you have to drive down a street that looks like the one my grandma lives on. This was alright though, because traffic is non-existent. We were one of maybe five cars on the road, and the garage we parked in only had about three levels full out of five. It was a nice change from the constant, hellish battle that is Penn State game day traffic.
Northwestern fans still appreciate Joe Paterno. Ryan Field only has two elevators, and they are used to access the higher-up rows of seats, suites, and press boxes, so they were the most crowded section of the stadium. While I was waiting in line to go up to the press box, I struck up a conversation with an attendant in the room. When he found out I was from Penn State, he told me a story about the last time Penn State played at Northwestern, in 2011. He said Paterno came to the elevator room, and while he was walking in, Northwestern fans applauded him. Apparently, Paterno leaned over to the attendant and asked, “Why is everyone clapping?” The attendant laughed and said, “For you, Coach!” The man continued to tell me about how nice Paterno was the entire day, and how much respect he had for him. After experiencing other schools express, well, different thoughts on the legacy of Paterno, it was nice to hear at least one Northwestern person express their appreciation for him.
Ryan Field felt like a really good high school team’s stadium. I stepped out of the car and immediately thought “is this it?” I had a slight change of heart as the game progressed. What the field lacks in size, it makes up for in quirky charm. Its open atmosphere enhances the unique, oval-shaped field’s high school vibe, but it grew on me. An open air stadium is a questionable design in the windiest of cities, but it put the fans in the game and allowed a more interactive experience. That said, I still felt like throwing on my high school cheerleading uniform on and whipping out a few backflips, not like I was watching a ranked Big Ten football team.
The kicking situation is still a mess. Tyler Davis was a perfect 3-for-3 on extra points, and didn’t attempt a field goal, in his first start after replacing Joey Julius, who didn’t make the trip to Evanston. While the placekicking was adequate, the kickoffs were a huge problem. Almost every kickoff was low, and at least half of them were squibbed. One squibbed kick was returned by Northwestern’s Solomon Vault for a 96-yard touchdown. “We didn’t call a squib kick,” James Franklin said after the game, “but we squibbed it almost every time.” I’m counting down the days until Quinn Nordin sends in his official Letter of Intent in February.