Northwestern has a unique weekend ahead as Notre Dame pays a visit to Ryan Field

EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 27: The Northwestern Wildcats celebrate after a college football game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Northwestern Wildcats on October 27, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston, IL. Northwestern won 31-17. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

EVANSTON – It’s happened over two-dozen times in the history of the program, yet there is something very unique about the Fighting Irish making their way to Central Street.

Sure Notre Dame has played at Dyche Stadium/Ryan Field before. They’ve played 26 times in Evanston against Northwestern, but it’s the timing that’s the thing. Not since 1976 have the teams met on the Wildcats’ true home field. There was a pair of games in the 1990s at Soldier Field, but those were home games for the Big Ten school in name only.

That’s why Saturday is special. The Fighting Irish not only play Northwestern at Ryan Field, but they do so as the third-ranked team in the country at 8-0. With four more wins, Brian Kelly will take his first team to the College Football Playoff, so the stakes are as high as they can get for Notre Dame.

Yet Northwestern is more formidable – leading the Big Ten West after collecting four-consecutive wins in the conference. The last came against then No. 20 Wisconsin last Saturday, and it’s cleared a direct path for the teams to capture their first division title along with a spot in the conference title game in Indianapolis.

Pat Fitzgerald’s team is playing their best football of the season, and since they can’t gain or lose ground in their Big Ten race this weekend, it makes for an unusual scenario for the Wildcats.

“In my time here, this is as unique of an opportunity, probably, that we’ve had, to play an outstanding football team, and we have a huge challenge in front of us,” said Fitzgerald. “Stepping out of Big Ten play is pretty rare – I don’t know how often it happens throughout the conference. I don’t remember the last time it happened here – this hasn’t been anytime that I can remember in my time – talking student-athlete, assistant, and now head coach.”

Fitzgerald certainly remembers his one game against the Irish in 1995 – a 17-15 victory in South Bend that proved to be a transformative moment for a program which hadn’t made a bowl since the 1948 season. With the linebacker leading the defense and Darnell Autry pacing the offense, the Wildcats went 10-1 in the regular season for their first Big Ten Championship since 1936, earning them a spot in the Rose Bowl.

The teams didn’t meet again for 19 years, but once again it was Northwestern who triumphed, knocking off the Irish in overtime at Notre Dame Stadium on a chilly mid-November day in South Bend. The last win for Notre Dame over the Wildcats came in 1994 at Soldier Field – one of two times in the 1990s that Northwestern hosted them in the city but not at home.

To find the last game between the foes in Evanston, you have to go back to September 25, 1976. That day Dan Devine’s Irish raced past Northwestern 48-0 for their 14th-straight win over the Wildcats in which Notre Dame outscored them 540-96.

One has to go back to 1962 to find Northwestern’s last win over the Irish at Dyche Stadium/Ryan Field – and it was a historic afternoon. The Wildcats’ 35-6 victory helped Ara Parseghian’s team rise to the No. 1 ranking, the last time the program has been in that coveted spot. Overall, Notre Dame leads the series for games played in Evanston 20-4-2.

That won’t happen in 2018 if the Wildcats win, but if they lose they’ll still be in prime position to win the Big Ten West. Nothing to lose perhaps? Fitzgerald would agree.

“It’s pretty rare, but at the same time, what a great opportunity,” said Fitzgerald of the Notre Dame game. We’ve got nothing to lose. So I think our guys are going to prepare really well and I think they’re going to be excited for the challenge.”