NEW YORK -- At about 3:15 p.m. EST, in a packed sports bar on New York's Upper West Side, a crowd of about 100 purple-clad Northwestern fans erupted in a chant never previously uttered in their lifetimes.
On this, my first travel-free Saturday in weeks, I figured it would be a good time to check in on my alma mater, which, I'd heard, was 4-0 for the first time since 1962. With those four wins having come against Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois and Ohio, it was impossible to tell whether the Wildcats were actually any good.
So I took the short subway ride to Blondie's, a favorite haunt of most of this city's Big Ten alumni, including my fellow Northwestern grads, who manage to make watching third-tier Big Ten games more fun than humanly imaginable. They sing the fight song. They drink purple shots after touchdowns. And they mimic the Ryan Field PA announcer's overdramatic calls of every first down.
At halftime, with the 'Cats trailing Iowa 17-10, I feared I had brought the crowd another dose of misfortune. Certain readers may recall that the last time I blogged about watching a game there, Pat Fitzgerald's team blew the biggest lead in college football history.
But an unusual transformation has taken place in Evanston. For years, Northwestern has been known for its high-powered spread offense and, annually, one of the worst defenses in college football. In 2008, for whatever reason, the offense has regressed, but the defense, under the direction of new coordinator Mike Hankwitz, has suddenly become decent.
Thanks to five forced turnovers (OK, technically, most of them were not "forced") and a dramatic, last-minute goal-line stand (technically, Iowa threw four passes from just inside the 10), the boys in purple rallied for a 22-17 victory. C.J. Bacher, in his best performance of the season, threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns.
So is Northwestern "good?" More like "good enough." After the "5-0" chant died down, a few in the Blondie's crowd began a half-hearted "Rose Bowl" chant. The funny thing is -- that's not as unrealistic as it sounds.
Historically, whenever Northwestern has had a good season, it's coincided with a friendly break from the Big Ten schedule makers. The 1995 Rose Bowl team didn't have to face Eddie George-led Ohio State. The 2000 conference co-champions didn't face the Buckeyes, either.
Guess who this year's team misses? Wisconsin and Penn State.
With the exception of Ohio State, the Wildcats may be just "good enough" to beat most of the remaining teams on their schedule. It's looking to be a very joyous fall at Blondie's.