As is the case with all Big Ten football games, the 2020 Big Ten Championship game will be closed to the general public, meaning no fans of either squad, nor their bands, will be allowed to watch their teams in action. Playing in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Northwestern and Ohio State will be locked in a grueling duel in front of almost 60,000 empty seats, far different than the last time they played in 2018.
That year, when Northwestern made the title bout for the first time and Ohio State was looking for a College Football Playoff Berth, the stadium was packed to full capacity, including almost 4,000 loyal Northwestern students in a section in the corner. After an anonymous donor had generously donated buses to be used for transport, students made the journey to Indy for the game and watched Northwestern test Ohio State in a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity.
Two years later and with no fans in attendance, we decided to recreate the fan experience of 2018. We spoke with four loyal Wildcat fans: Jacob Munoz, who covered the game in the press box for NBN Sports; Bobby Read, who performed with the Northwestern University Marching Band (NUMB); and Sahil Akolawala and Kirtana Sandepudi, who rode the bus and joined other fans to cheer for the ’Cats.
Hopefully, next year will create more stories. Until then, let’s remember the better days.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Did you ever expect Northwestern to make it to the championship?
Jacob Munoz: “Maybe at the start of the season, I had hope, but after the first few games — I think they were 1-2 and lost to Akron, I was in the press box at the time covering the game for NBN — it was not the kind of turnaround I'd ever expected to see. I felt very fortunate that we were even in the Big Ten Game. I knew that we were going up against Ohio State, which was a demon at the time in terms of just looking like a college football playoff contender. So nothing to take away from that at all, but I was never expecting that kind of thing.”
Sahil Akolawala: “I think we know that based on the histories there’s some years where they have stretches of good performance and then kind of flub it at the end, or it's just up and down depending on the game that they play, so it was really exciting to see them take it all the way.”
Do you remember where you were when NU clinched a spot in the game?
Bobby Read: “I was watching it with the altos in the basement of the Phi Mu Alpha (PMA, the music fraternity) house. We were on the edge of our seats the entire game, [and when they won] we were screaming our heads off. We ran upstairs and into the PMA common room where all the brothers were. And like two seconds later, all of the girls from [Sigma Alpha Iota, the music sorority] came running over to PMA. I remember standing in the common room of PMA, screaming “Go U Northwestern,” at the top of our lungs, and we were so excited. That's the night that we went over to Ryan Fieldhouse and the Walter Athletic Center, and whoever could make it showed up, and we played “Go U” [and] “Push On” for the football team as they showed up to unload after the game. It was maybe nine or 10 o'clock at night, and it was pretty chilly because it was in November, and we were standing out there and we were just screaming, cheering, playing the fight songs. None of [the football team] wanted to leave, we didn't want to leave. It was just such a cool experience.”
Jacob Munoz: “I covered the game in Iowa, that was a huge fan experience, that was something I had never seen in a college football stadium before. The only big reaction I remember was of Ben Skowronek’s game-winning touchdown catch, coming from me not trying to lose my cool as the other NU writers were just as shocked as I was.”
Did you always plan on going to the game, even before they announced they would be providing transportation for all students?
Jacob Munoz: “I had been hoping [to go] with Jono and Shreyas, who were our other sports editors at the time — we were hoping to make it. That was the goal. Even when we had heard that they were offering student rides via the buses, that had never really changed the plan of going, that was just an added bonus. I believe that they took the buses, or at least one of them took the bus. I actually drove with my parents to Indianapolis. They stayed in and were at a bar watching the game, while I was obviously at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the goal was there the whole time, to get there once it was announced.”
Sahil Akolawala: “The moment that it was announced, and it came across my attention, I knew that I had to go on the trip. A very rare opportunity. I definitely made the decision to go when they said that they were providing the resources to travel because otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to get there. I definitely think it made a difference for a lot of students, because it was free transportation for a trip, and then there was also the element of camaraderie, like you try to line up together and get on the same buses and travel with groups of friends. It was just a really fun time.
On the days leading up to the game, did anything significant happen?
Bobby Read: “[There was a] huge intensity added to those rehearsals. We were all so excited about going there that I think we all forgot that we had to actually rehearse and perform. We were just all having so much fun during those rehearsals that we never really wanted to do any work to prepare. It was kind of scary, because we got to Lucas Oil [Stadium,] and we had one rehearsal on the field, and I remember thinking, 'This is going to be a disaster, there's no way that we are going to be able to pull off this performance.' This is the Big Ten Championship, this is where we can make a name for ourselves, and [during] that rehearsal, we were terrified. It was one of the most intense rehearsals in my three years at Northwestern. Then the day of the game, we got in there … I don't want to say it was flawless, because there were a couple slip ups and some of the marchers slipped and missed some turns, and it was a little slippery because of the new paint and everything, but it was a damn good performance.”
What about outside of the stadium? Was anything exciting happening?
Jacob Munoz: “I don't remember any of the people there, like specific celebrities or journalists, but there was live music, there were these giant TVs. Pre-COVID, of course, everyone was packed in [and] having a good time. They'd also drink, and everyone was just having just a blast. It covered a lot of Indianapolis. The Big Ten Fan Fest, it captured to me the sense that it wasn't just like an Ohio State-Northwestern thing, it was a Big Ten thing. The whole Midwest, every Midwestern football fan, it seemed, converged right onto this city, and going into it and experiencing this fan fest before covering the game, knowing I’m covering the game and outside of the crowd made me realize how important the moment was going to be. So it was definitely the prelude to a very big game that in every way lived up to the heights before the game.”
Before the game, the Northwestern band goes out and performs the National Anthem with Ohio State. What was that like?
Bobby Read: “First of all, coming from Ohio, everyone back home loves Ohio State, so everyone was watching this game. I remember checking my phone on the bus ride home after the game, and I was tagged in probably 20 plus Facebook posts, and on Instagram or Twitter. Sure enough, the camera had panned right across the 50 yard line, which is right where I'm standing for the national anthem, and if you pause the TV, you could see me right there. All these people from back home, whether they were Ohio State or Northwestern fans, were taking pictures and tagging me in it on social media, and they're saying, 'Wow, that was such a cool experience.' Even my old band director tagged me and said, 'So honored to see my former student go on and play in the Big Ten.' It was just so cool, because no matter what, these two bands coming together just showed the unity of the Big Ten and the unity of marching bands and coming together for the Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I remember thinking, 'Either way, I come out a winner! Northwestern, we go to the Rose Bowl or get into a really good bowl, or Ohio State could win and win the Rose Bowl.' But then I also distinctly remember saying to so many people, and really truly believing it, 'Northwestern is my school.' I remember saying these exact words: 'I bleed purple before I bleed red.'"
And what about the fan experience to start the game?
Kirtana Sandepudi: “I'm a self-confessed non-football fan who definitely went there just because of the hype around the event, but there were a lot of people there like that. I think everyone was really into watching the game and had a good time.”
Sahil Akolawala: “And the swag of course, getting the hat, the shirts. The chicken tenders at Lucas Oil are also really, really good.”
So we know the end result, of course. But there was a shining moment in the first quarter when Northwestern running back John Moten broke away for one of the longest runs in Big Ten Championship history. Do you remember that?
Jacob Munoz: “He had been such an afterthought for most of the season. He was our backup or backup’s backup, but he was serviceable. But him bursting out into that run just made everyone in the stands go crazy, both Ohio State, Northwestern, just because of the sheer shock of it all. In the press box I was containing myself: you're not supposed to cheer, just be professional, but I was looking at Jono and Shreyas, and I was like, 'I can't believe we just witnessed this.' Even though Ohio State had the lead for the rest of the game, it was definitely a big moment, and I think it put us on the map nationally. People would remember that run.”
Bobby Read: “Being right in the middle of the marching band, I remember it being very loud, and the student section was huge, but other than that, if you looked around that stadium, it was red. So when that play happened, you just saw the red wither into their seats, and the small section of purple shoved in the corner of Lucas Oil, we just erupted. We filled it enough for the fans that were watching at home, we went crazy, because it's Ohio State, and they were doing really well that year, so we realized that this is a really good team, and it's going to be hard to beat them. But we also believed in Clayton Thorson and [Pat] Fitzgerald. That run brought all of us into the actual realization that we could win this thing: we are here, and we have a fighting chance.”
Unfortunately, Northwestern would lose the game. But a lot of people have spoken so positively about the experience, the final score almost doesn’t seem to matter. Do you have any final takeaways?
Jacob Munoz: “It was definitely an unforgettable experience, and something that really made me feel like a professional. Because as a sports journalist, when you're there sitting with local and national media, and the rows are just filled in the press box, and there's this overall vibe of importance and this grand bravado, in a way, it felt like the big leagues. It got me loving the idea of covering sports professionally. I don't know if I'm going to cover sports in my career, but I know that for that moment in time, when I was able to cover the 2018 season, it was just an unbelievable sense of magic. I believe it really blossomed that day, and obviously it was a special occasion. I remember every single minute of it, and I longed for it again.”
Bobby Read: “Obviously, the band was a little disappointed, because once we realized that we weren't going to win, we knew we weren't going to make the Rose Bowl. I don't even want to say that we lost hope or we weren't as excited, because even though Ohio State started making a bigger lead, we were still proud of the fact that we were there: this private school from Illinois, with only 8,000 students, that no one respected in football terms, at the Big Ten championship. We had already made a difference in the Big Ten that year, and we had made a name for ourselves, and I think we were proud of that, no matter if we won or not. Academically, athletically, Northwestern is a unique school, and we have definitely created a name for ourselves in recent years in the Big Ten. No matter what critics try to say about us or say we're an underdog, we will always be able to come back and win games, and we will always be at the top in the nation, whether it be academically or on the sports field. I think that's important to remember.”
Sahil Akolawala: “I know there are certain pockets of students who are very focused on the here and now, and the work that they have to do, and you should sometimes sacrifice time on the weekend to really take it out for these kinds of experiences. Just a reminder, there are other elements of college besides the work and the professional aspect, and if you can really take the time and convince a group of friends to go for something like this, especially if you're even mildly into sports, even if you just like getting together.”
Kirtana Sandepudi: “It really is kind of a once in a lifetime experience, because really, when else are you going to go to a college football game of this scale?”