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Column: Let’s stop patronizing Northwestern

The Cats showed up to play Saturday. And that’s good for everyone.

Big Ten Championship Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been a while. Happy to be back. Let’s jump in.

Despite writing for LGHL for almost six years now, I am not, in fact, an alum of The Ohio State University. Ironically, I am a dual alum of Northwestern, holding a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

Being a lifelong Ohio State fan, having grown up minutes from campus, Saturday brought a lot of conflicting emotions. In fact, on Saturday morning, I found myself donning an Ohio State beanie with Northwestern mittens during our morning stroll in an attempt to show support for both teams.

While Ohio State certainly had more on the line with the narrative of the moment (you remember Saturday at noon: a College Football Playoff berth hanging in the balance, etc.), there was still a tiny part of me that thought Northwestern had a real shot at national prominence, a part that thought Northwestern could actually beat the Buckeyes and be good in its own right.

Yes, let’s pause there: Northwestern should have been in the playoff conversation Saturday morning (and all last week). If Northwestern were to have beaten Ohio State Saturday, the Wildcats should have been considered for playoff contention as the Big Ten Conference champs.

And yet, the narrative was around Texas A&M — a team that got blown out by another playoff shoe in; a team that didn’t win its own division and wasn’t even part of its conference’s championship game. Other teams like Oklahoma, Cincinnati and even Iowa State had more consideration and got more air time on the subject than the Wildcats.

No, the commentators couldn’t spend the time of day on Northwestern. Not a team that, for the last decade, has been remarkably consistent. A team with one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the FBS. A team that made the Big Ten Championship in 2018. A team that’s on a three-game bowl win streak. A team that’s been drama-free. A team that has not had a single positive COVID-19 test all season.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. We need to stop patronizing Northwestern.

As Ohio State fans, it is so easy to get caught in the condescending talk of “oh, look at ickle Northwestern, doing such a good job winning the Big Ten West!” It’s easy to slot them in as second best since the Buckeyes are clearly No. 1, with a lot of space between first and second place. It’s easy to look at their recruiting classes and exclaim how much they’ve managed to do with so little, or how, as a little private school renowned for their academics more than athletics, they’ve managed to overcome so much.

It’s easy to assume the Buckeyes will put up a dominant performance at every turn against that tiny private school just outside Chicago. When the Buckeyes don’t, it’s easy to say things like “well, Ohio State was missing 22 players,” or “Justin Fields was playing with a sprained thumb.” It might be true, but it takes away the credit that is due to the Wildcat program.

The reality is that Northwestern came to play Saturday. That defense was no joke. The Buckeyes went into halftime down for the first time all season. The 20-point opening spread for the game was just insulting to a team that had held offenses to nothing.

It wasn’t a fluke. The Wildcats were the most even matchup the Buckeyes have faced all season. The 12-point margin of victory may have been larger than Ohio State earned against Indiana, but the Buckeyes had to lock it up in the fourth quarter to cut off Northwestern — something they struggled with against both the Hoosiers (hence the narrower margin of victory) and Rutgers. And if you recall, Ohio State was up 35-7 on Indiana in the third quarter; the game didn’t get competitive until the Buckeyes started loosening the grip.

Saturday’s championship game said more about Northwestern than it did Ohio State. The Buckeyes did what they were supposed to do — win. They overcame and made adjustments against a great opponent, which should still be a feather in the Buckeyes’ cap, because winning close games requires a different set of skills.

But Northwestern did far more than anyone expected Saturday. The Wildcats held Justin Fields, who’s almost assuredly a top-five pick in next year’s NFL Draft, to zero — zero — touchdown passes and two picks. Fields had just 114 yards passing — a career low at Ohio State. Even in Fields’ other performances where he’s struggled (Clemson, Indiana), he’s thrown up big numbers. Credit goes to Northwestern for holding him back.

However, there was no such recognition by Sunday morning. The narrative was firmly around Trey Sermon’s record-setting performance (note that most of his yards and both his touchdowns came in the second half, after Ohio State had the chance to make adjustments on a stout defense). Around Fields’ sprained thumb. Around the Buckeyes in the Playoff.

The Wildcats faded into obscurity in a matter of hours, in particular with the New Year’s Six bowl game announcements came. The announcements features the aforementioned Aggies (8-1), No. 13 North Carolina (8-3), No. 25 Oregon (4-2), No. 10 Iowa State (8-3) (why the Cyclones are No. 10 remains a mystery to me and my husband, who is from Iowa), No. 8 Cincinnati (9-0), No. 9 Georgia (7-2), No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2) and No. 7 Florida (8-3). *Note there are contractual obligations between some bowl games and some conferences which does account for a subset of this hogwash.

Northwestern finished ranked 14th in the CFP poll, ending the season with a 6-2 record. The Wildcats had a bizarre loss to Michigan State, but good wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. To disrespect the Wildcats by leaving them out of a New Year’s Six bowl game? Malarkey. Nonsense. Bologna.

This year marks the first since the New Year’s Six became a thing (2014 season) that the Big Ten has sent only one team among the group of 12. While it’s expedient to point to the game total (i.e., the Big Ten was punished for having a shorter season), that reasoning clearly did not affect Ohio State, which enters the Playoff as the No. 3 seed with just six games under its belt. Northwestern finished with eight games, so what gives?

The reality is that the Big Ten brand only goes so far, and the reason the conference only has one team is because the other “big” Big Ten brands (Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin) were certainly out of the running. Ohio State has benefited from having a great brand, but it definitely stinks that the on-field performance of programs with less brand equity is swept under the rug.

There are teams that I like that I don’t necessarily cheer for to win, but cheer for not to get embarrassed against Ohio State. For a long time, Northwestern fell into that category. Saturday, however, I realized how unfair that was to the Wildcats. They’re not a team to be pitied. They’ve proven they’re a team that can hold their own against even the toughest competition. They should be given the same chance as other Power Five teams to prove it.