The Northwestern football team has been about as up-and-down as the stock market over the course of the last three seasons.
Like the market now, though, despite all the pandemic-produced challenges, the 6-1 Wildcats are trending toward all-time highs.
Their reward? A date with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game Saturday in Indianapolis.
If it weren’t for last season, this year’s title game wouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, Northwestern cruised to an 8-1 record in the Big Ten West on the way to a championship showdown against OSU in 2018 — a game the Buckeyes won 45-24.
As for last season, well, it was a painful one for the Wildcats. They finished 3-9 overall and 1-8 in conference play, with their lone win a 29-10 victory over Illinois on the final day of the regular season.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald promised last season, the most disappointing of his career, was a fluke.
“This type of record will never happen again,” Fitzgerald said after the finale against the Illini on Nov. 30, 2019. “It’ll never happen again.”
He was right.
He also said his team would make a return trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Again … he was right.
Fitzgerald’s comments seemed like a stretch when he made them, but they didn’t seem so far-fetched to some. Those close to the program knew Fitzgerald would get things back on track.
Olentangy Liberty graduate Ben Wrather was a believer as well. Wrather, now a freshman offensive lineman on a full athletic scholarship at Northwestern, had 30-plus offers to sift through while playing for the Patriots. Now, he’s glad he made the decision he did.
“Choosing to come to Northwestern was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he said. “From day one, the guys pulled me in and took me under their wings. Coach Fitz is the best coach in college football, without a doubt. I’m definitely glad I made the decision to come here.”
Despite being a freshman, Wrather’s had a hand in every game this season.
“Coming in, there were a few guys who were injured and opted out of the season on the o-line, which helped get me a spot on the two-deep and travel squad in my first year,” he said. “Also, with the redshirt rule this year, I’ve gotten to played in every game on the field goal unit. That’s been huge, and allowed me to gain even more experience at the college level.”
The next experience he gets will be in the Big Ten Championship Game.
“It’s going to be exciting playing Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game,” Wrather said. “In the end, we’re treating it just like we do any game and preparing hard for this weekend. Making it to the Big Ten Championship Game is pretty special, and will definitely be something I’ll never forget. It’s really a testament to all the work we put in over the spring and summer.”
Despite being an offseason like no other — one that featured masks, social distancing, a slew of other safety protocols and a ton of uncertainty — Wrather, who hasn’t been home since June, said the pandemic has helped his team focus more on football and less on everything else.
“It’s been an odd year, but football has added a bit of normalcy,” he said. “Obviously it’s tough being in a bubble and protecting yourself from the virus by staying away from people outside of the team, but it’s made all of us better teammates. We’ve been up and down the rollercoaster of emotions all year, but that’s only made us trust ourselves more. We know that our brothers have our backs, and I think that’s evident when you see us on the field.
“Given all this, I think this environment has been beneficial in my transition to the next level. I can focus on learning as much as I can without many distractions. And with classes being online, there’s more time to watch film, ask questions and really be a student of the game.”