Northwestern Wins: A Wet Kiss For Chicago's Big 10 Football Team

I am a big believer in relying on empirical evidence. So I can now say unequivocally that it always rains on Northwestern University football games.

After all, I went to Northwestern's season finale last Thanksgiving Saturday to see my Michigan State team play (and win), and endured a steady, cold rain that lasted the entire game. At least this weather was predicted, and only my loyalty to the Spartans would have led me to sit outside for three and a half hours in such miserable weather.

But last night, when I attended Northwestern's 2012 season opener against Vanderbilt (at the invitation of old friend Stu Robinson, a Wildcat alum and former Washington, D.C., colleague, now living in Phoenix), the weather at game time was lovely, and the forecast allowed for just a slight chance of a passing shower. So there was little reason to worry when we felt the first raindrops around the middle of the 4th quarter, with the home team driving for a come-from-behind win.

Except that it rained harder and harder, and the "passing shower" lasted the remainder of the game and for a couple of hours beyond. Quintessential Chicago weather, yes. But until I go to a game in Evanston and don't come home wet, I have to operate under the presumption that the weather always sucks for Northwestern games.

Oh, BTW, Northwestern won, defeating the Vanderbilt Commodores, 23-13, by outscoring the visitors 17-3 in the final quarter. It was a sweet win for the Wildcats -- now 2-0 to start the season after opening with a 42-41 cliffhanger win at Syracuse -- in part because Vanderbilt plays in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

Although Vandy is not expected to be a major contender this season, the fact that the conference has produced the NCAA big-college national football champion in each of the past six seasons have produced an impression that any team in the SEC is better than any team in any other league. That helps explain why Vanderbilt was established by oddsmakers as a slight pre-game favorite to defeat Northwestern on their home field.

That appeared the likely outcome in the first half, which Vanderbilt dominated statistically and led by 10-3 as the Commodores drove to pad their advantage before the halftime break. But Northwestern, defending deep in its own territory, recovered a fumble by Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, a brother of Green Bay Packers star QB Aaron Rodgers. The play turned out to be a momentum changer.

After barely surviving its own defensive lapses in that track meet in Syracuse, Northwestern was mainly lock-down in the second half, holding Vanderbilt to a field goal and few other scoring opportunities. And Northwestern's offense, anemic in the first half, produced a field goal early in the 3rd quarter to trim the deficit to 10-6 and a 7-yard touchdown by star running back Venric Mark to give Northwestern a 13-10 lead with nine and a half minutes left. After Vanderbilt kicked a field goal at the 5:21 mark to tie the game, Northwestern responded with a field goal of its own with 2:01 left to make it 16-13.

Vanderbilt had one more chance to tie or win, but again fumbled the ball away. Though Northwestern was focused on trying to run out the clock, quarterback Kain Colter -- better known for his speed than his passing skills -- ran into a scrum at the line of scrimmage, spun out to his right and found nothing but open field between him and the end zone 29 yards away for the clinching touchdown.

I am not a Northwestern "fan" and will never be, as the school is a Big 10 rival of Michigan State. Still, since the only previous times I'd been to games of any sport at Northwestern were to root for a visiting MSU team, it was nice for a change to be able to root for the school that boasts of being "Chicago's Big 10 Team." And Ryan Field, which has the smallest capacity of any Big 10 football stadium, is a nice, old-fashioned, close-to-the-field experience.

But if you happen to a game there, let me know what the weather was. I'd be happy to have my theory that it always rains there dispelled.

Some photos I took at the game:

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter attempts a pass against Vanderbilt pressure in the 1st quarter.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football I

Northwestern running back Venric Mark, who ended up with 123 yards rushing on 24 carries, tries a right sweep in the 1st quarter.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football II

Carey Spear kicks a 32-yard field early in the 2nd quarter to give Vanderbilt a 10-3 lead.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football III

With Vanderbilt backed up to its 2-yard line, quarterback Jordan Rodgers buys some space with a seven-yard completion to Fitz Lassing (38).

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football IV

Rodgers sneaks for a first down late in the 2nd quarter. But he would fumble on the Northwestern 19, killing a drive that could have extended Vanderbilt's lead at the half.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football V

The Michigan State flag flies high over Ryan Field in its array of Big 10 banners. But that University of Michigan flag behind it looks a little, um, limp.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football VI

Venric Mark finds a small hole on the left side and makes the most of it, with a 7-yard touchdown run that put Northwestern ahead for the first time at 13-10.

Northwestern-Vanderbilt football VII

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