By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — Chicago will always be an NFL town, first, last and always.
But that doesn’t mean there is not an appreciation of the college game. NFL fans who don’t care about college football should pay attention if only because the next generation of stars come from college football.
Also, the creativity found in the NFL game often is derived from things that aggressive college offenses try on Saturday.
But even the most devout pro football fans should pay attention to what’s going to happen in Evanston tonight when Ohio State comes calling on Northwestern.
Northwestern has been a viable force in the Big Ten ever since the magical season of 1995 when Gary Barnett took the Wildcats to Pasadena in a remarkable Rose Bowl season.
That team, led by running back Darnell Autry, quarterback Steve Schnur, wide receiver D’Wayne Bates and a linebacker named Pat Fitzgerald, revived college football in Evanston.
There have been good seasons and bad ones since, but the arrow has been moving up steadily.
This year, the Wildcats (4-0) have a chance to be something special. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian give Northwestern a two-headed attack under center that actually works. Colter is the running quarterback who can pass, while Siemian is the passing quarterback who will stand in the pocket, take the abuse and make plays.
The Wildcats can move the ball on offense and they are not going to quake in their boots at the sight of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes.
The Wildcats are not going to try to win with gimmicks or take the air out of the ball and try to hang on for dear life. They are more than willing to trade punches with the Buckeyes and try to win a football game.
Northwestern is not asking its fans to believe that David can beat Goliath. They are asking them to believe that they are going to see a team that is every bit as good as Ohio State and quite possibly better.
At least on Saturday night.
The Wildcats have a lot of things going for them. Fitzgerald’s team is coming off a bye week. That means that it did not go through any bone-crunching game against a non-conference opponent. The Wildcats had a chance to recover from early-season injuries last week as they prepared for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State had no such off week. Instead, they hosted a very large and nasty Wisconsin team that extended them to the limit before the Buckeyes survived by a 31-24 margin. That was a huge game for Ohio State and Meyer asked for and received his team’s best effort.
This is an important game for Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten) because they want to remain undefeated so they can pursue a national championship. But Ohio State has beaten Northwestern in 28 of their last 29 meetings. They can’t look at Northwestern as anything more than a pesky annoyance.
Northwestern will be well-prepared for this game, and they have everything to play for. Running backs Vernric Mark and Treyvon Green will try to take it to Ohio State’s defense on the ground, while Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale will try to make big plays through the air.
Ohio State is going to try to overwhelm Northwestern’s defense with Braxton Miller, Jordan Hall and Devin Smith. They are talented and deep, and most weeks they would be good enough to get the best of the Wildcats.
But this is the biggest game in the school’s history and the Wildcats will be prepared.
The Buckeyes are haughty and superior.
They will get a lesson from a team that can fight with them on even terms.
The upset happens as the rested and prepared Wildcats get the best of their long-time tormentors.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.