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Northwestern eager to close the gap on Ohio State

KaColter Troy Eastman

Kain Colter, Troy Eastman

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The facts: 7 p.m., Ch. 7, 1000-AM.

The records: OSU 5-0, 1-0 Big Ten; NU 4-0, 0-0.

The line: Ohio State by 7.

Updated: November 6, 2013 6:08AM

Two weeks ago, Kain Colter already knew how big Northwestern’s game against Ohio State on Saturday would be — or at least could be.

With his team on a bye last Saturday, the Wildcats’ quarterback was glued to the Buckeyes’ home game against Wisconsin, eagerly awaiting the outcome of a game that would have major implications on which team would represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. But more personally, he was interested in what the game would mean to Colter and the Wildcats.

Even though Northwestern isn’t in the same division as the Buckeyes, there was no questioning ­Colter’s allegiance.

“I was rooting for Ohio State,” Colter said.

With its 31-24 victory, Ohio State remained undefeated, which Colter knew was needed for the game Saturday to draw national attention.

But the game’s meaning to each team, at least historically, couldn’t be more different.

For Northwestern, it amounts to the biggest regular-season game in school history. The opportunity is perfectly aligned for the Wildcats. They’re undefeated, ranked 16th, considered a sleeper to win the conference title and have the opportunity to beat an Ohio State team that is a contender for the national championship.

To the Buckeyes, it’s just another Saturday.

The tradition-rich Ohio State football program perennially is considered among the favorites to win the Big Ten title and often is in the conversation to win the national championship.

The game against Wisconsin was, from the Buckeyes’ perspective, built up as much as the matchup Saturday against the Wildcats. To Ohio State, a big game involves the word “championship.”

That’s where Northwestern wants to be.

So much fanfare is expected that even basketball coach Chris Collins will use the weekend as a platform for recruiting. Several high-profile recruits are expected to be on campus as Collins tries to steer the basketball program onto the same path as his football counterpart.

“This is where you want to be at, to have this [type of] hype [for] this game,” Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott said.

In coach-speak, hype translates to distraction.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, known to throw his team on a mental roller coaster in preparation for big games, is feigning the idea that this is just another game.

“Any Big Ten game is a huge opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s why our young men choose to come be a part of this program, and they want to play and compete for Big Ten championships and get the best degree in college football.”

Statistically, Fitzgerald might be right.

Winning the game might help Northwestern toward its goal of winning the conference championship. But after only one conference game, the Wildcats still are far from it.

Then again, Fitzgerald always says “stats are for losers.”

More than any implication it might have on Northwestern’s bid for a conference title, the game serves as a barometer of how far the program has come under ­Fitzgerald.

“I’m not going to lie, this is a game I circled on my schedule just because I haven’t played these guys before,” Colter said. “I’ve played, I think, almost every team in the Big Ten besides them. A great program, great tradition, and I guess we get to match ourselves up and see where we’re at.”

Here’s where Northwestern is at heading into the game: The Wildcats have beaten the Buckeyes once since 1972.

The gap between the programs is huge. But it’s one that could close by Saturday night.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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