In the Cold Rain of West Lafayette, the Cream Rises to the Top

(AP Photo/The Journal & Courier, Brent Drinkut)

(AP Photo/The Journal & Courier, Brent Drinkut)

That seems like a fitting headline, right? At least, in the sense that the cream was rising to the top of fans’ hot chocolates as they suffered through one of the sloppier games that will be played in the Big Ten this season.

I made the trek to West Lafayette early this morning with Fish, Woldy and Whitehead. Our spirits were high, even though the overall consensus among us was that Northwestern would probably lose.

Tension started to build a bit as we hit traffic on I-65, as we were called derogatory terms in a West Lafayette Arby’s, and as we arrived at the stadium right after kickoff, only to see Northwestern’s own Arby fumble on the first snap of the game.

Things got ugly quickly, and our jokes about the team’s poor performance soon turned into silent stares into a cold mist falling upon Ross Ade Stadium.

Northwestern couldn’t tackle. Northwestern couldn’t score from the one yard line. Northwestern couldn’t compete with a team most consider a bottom feeder in the Big Ten this year.

The situation was so gloomy that Fish, the driver on the trip, took out his keys and asked if we wanted to leave two minutes before halftime, just seconds after the ‘Cats failed to convert on a 4th-and-goal from the 1. It seemed like game over, and pneumonia hardly seemed like a reward for obstinate loyalty.

But then something happened to Purdue, something inexplicable, something that defied football logic, and something that could, while seemingly unlikely, change the course of Northwestern’s season.

The Boilermakers lost the ability to hold on to the football. First it was an interception immediately following the turnover on downs. The ‘Cats cashed in with a touchdown. 21-10.

Then a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. A field goal for Northwestern. 21-13.

Then another fumble on the first snap of Purdue’s next series. Another NU field goal. 21-16. The above events all happened in the last two minutes of the first half, with Northwestern having zero timeouts in its pocket.

It was a comical change of momentum during a game Northwestern had no business hanging around in. If there’s one sound I love when my team is playing on the road, it’s the sound of a fan base booing its team off the field. That was happening at Ross-Ade Stadium.

The second half was a mix of rain, cold, wind, miserableness, happiness, frustration, anxiety and torture. The Wildcat defense hung tough for the entire half while the offense took its time in scoring the go-ahead touchdown. And what would a Northwestern win be without a chance for the opposing team to win in the last minute? Purdue had four chances from inside the NU 10-yard line to win the game and could not.

The elation we experienced from the win was matched only by the relief of avoiding a miserable drive home after another stomach-punch loss.

The feeling of going on a road trip to watch your school play football or basketball, in a hostile environment, and win, is like no other. To sit with other fans who made the same trip, to ride the emotional roller coaster of a college football or basketball game, and to finally win makes the long drives and fast food all worth it.

To sing the fight song with the football team as a disappointed home crowd shuffles out provides the college fan a feeling of superiority that, at least to a Northwestern fan, occurs far too infrequently.

Because of that, even if the win is ugly, even if the team is down 21-3 in the first half, even if it took five fumbles and a last minute drive to take the lead, and even if a crushing defeat was in the form of a pass just inches too high, winning on the road is a cause for celebration. For an afternoon, all the problems of the young season disappeared. All the debate of bowl or no bowl took a back seat to the revelry of a dramatic win.

I’ll savor this one, for sure. I can only stave off reality for so long.

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