That Northwestern is even pursuing respect is in and of itself worthy of consideration, taking into account how dreadful the one-time “Mildcats” were.
That was when Northwestern was the laughingstock of the Big Ten, the automatic “W” on every opponent's schedule, the last-place tenant in the Big Ten 10 of the last 25 years.
But who's laughing now? Who's even snickering or concealing a wry smile as the Wildcats, one of the best teams in the Big Ten, according to the standings, prepares to meet the second-best team in Ohio, according to the polls, Saturday night in Ohio Stadium.
Unranked Ohio State (2-1, 1-0) used to utilize its Northwestern week to prepare for Michigan, but those days have long vanished.
The Wildcats (3-0, 1-0) are ranked 14th in the AP poll, the highest rating of any Big Ten team. They're off to their best start in 39 years. They've made believers out of themselves, especially after their miracle comeback victory last Saturday against Michigan State. But they still embody the anatomy of Wildcats past, according to many gridiron zealots.
Yo! What team has won or shared more Big Ten football championships over the last six years than Northwestern? The answer is no one, but if you said Michigan, you get a prowess point. Both institutions have one outright and two title shares.
The Wildcats were picked to win the conference championship this year by the media, a first according to foremost Big Ten historians.
The only Big Ten team that Northwestern hasn't beaten over the last six years is Ohio State, that memoir buoyed in large part by the fact that the two teams have met only twice during that time span.
When Northwestern, picked to finish in the basement last season, garnered a piece of the title along with Michigan and Purdue, the common conclusion was that the Wildcats overachieved, the word “fluke” being a knavish explanation.
“In the Big Ten everyone is fast and strong and it's a matter of attitude,” Northwestern tailback Damien Anderson explained yesterday. “When you've got an Ohio State or Michigan, you have tradition and you know what you're playing for. Those were foundations where tradition is instilled, but we lift weights like everyone else.”
Anderson vividly remembers the Buckeyes' two victories over Northwestern, 49-6 in 1997 and 36-10 the following year. He has no recollection of the Wildcats' last victory over Ohio State, that being in 1971.
“Both games were over-domination,” he recalled. “In the ‘Shoe' (1997) we were pretty bad. In the other game we stayed with them for a half. They had some great guys. They were stacked offensively and defensively. They had some studs, (Michael) Wiley, (Rickey) Dudley, (Joe) Montgomery and (Andy) Katzenmoyer.
“They're an athletic bunch of guys this year. Ohio State gets the cream of the crop. We know they're a physical bunch and they have a lot of studs on the team like Michael Doss (defensive back). We know they've got great athletes; it's just a matter of playing. You can't be consumed by individual players. You have to play your game.”
Northwestern quarterback Zak Kustok, a transfer from Notre Dame who the winless Fighting Irish are probably wishing never got away, said Northwestern has just as many good athletes as other Big Ten football programs.
“We've had a lot of great players recruited over the last six years,” he noted. “Guys came here because of the Rose Bowl (1995) and Citrus Bowl (1996) teams. We got some of best players in the country, who could have gone to a lot of Big Ten schools but came here.”
Kustok left Notre Dame midway through his sophomore season because he thought his playing time would be limited. He transferred to Northwestern only to run into a new coach in Randy Walker, who replaced Gary Barnett in 1999.
“Coach Walker really got us playing hard, working hard, playing as a team, and it was just a matter of time before Northwestern came back to the big time,” Kustok said.
Walker acknowledges his team has something to prove.
“Obviously, there was a certain amount of, what's the word? Skepticism's the word I'm thinking of,” he said. “‘They're doing it with smoke and mirrors.' We didn't do it with smoke and mirrors. We executed better. We blocked better. We caught better. We threw better.”
Northwestern has smoke and miracles in Anderson, the nation's 13th-leading rusher with a 125.7 average, and Kustok. His Hail Mary pass completion against Michigan State set up the 47- yard, game-winning field goal by David Wasielewski as time expired.
Kustok is third nationally in total offense (328.2 yards per game) including a 70.7 rushing average.