The last time Northwestern beat Ohio State, Zach Strief had a front-row seat.
It was Oct. 2, 2004, and the current Saints tackle was a junior at Northwestern when the Wildcats knocked off the seventh-ranked Buckeyes 33-27 in overtime for their only victory in the series in the past 42 years.
“They rushed the field,” Strief recalled earlier this week. “Man, that was a good night.”
So what wouldn’t Strief give to be at Ryan Field on Saturday, when two undefeated teams meet in a game big enough to attract ESPN’s “College GameDay” show in the morning and be ABC’s prime-time showcase in the evening — especially since he’ll just be 15 miles away in the Saints team hotel on the eve of Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears?
“If they were playing in the afternoon, I’d definitely be there,” said Strief, who will have the opportunity to visit campus and take in some pregame atmosphere thanks to the Saints leaving Friday to avoid Tropical Storm Karen. “But we’ve got meetings on Saturday night, and the fine for missing one ($10,400) is too steep. I’ll watch what I can, though.”
Strief will have more than rooting interest in the outcome. He and safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played at Ohio State, have a bet on the outcome — the exact nature of which they wouldn’t reveal.
Strief is so confident that Northwestern will win that he’s not even taking the seven points the Wildcats are getting from oddsmakers. After all, when your alma mater is brave enough to make the Buckeyes its homecoming game, you’ve got to have faith.
“Strief’s been building up this game for a month,” said Jenkins, who didn’t lose to Northwestern during his time at Ohio State. “I think he’s hoping our previous opponent (Wisconsin, which the Buckeyes outlasted 31-24 last Saturday) will have worn us down. And even though we’ve whipped Northwestern so many times, I can understand his enthusiasm. But we are the Ohio State University, and this is prime time, so you know how it’s going to go.”
Strief and Jenkins aren’t the only ones in the Saints locker room who tout their colleges on a regular basis. Roman Harper and Mark Ingram need no prompting to extol the greatness of Alabama. And Jonathan Vilma likes to talk about the glory days of Miami and how the Hurricanes are again on the rise.
In fact, Vilma may be the most knowledgeable college football expert on the team. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was surprised when Vilma wanted to talk about Hicks’ playing experiences at Regina University in Saskatchewan.
“He knows that Regina is one of the top teams in (Canadian Interuniversity Sport, Canada’s version of the NCAA) and that we’re going to win the Vanier Cup this year,” said Hicks, who spent a year at LSU before winding up in Canada. “JV just likes to talk football.”
In the locker room, big victories against rivals are especially savored. Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins said his only disappointment about Georgia beating LSU last week was that there are no former Tigers on the Saints to lord it over.
“But there were enough LSU fans around here that I still had a good time,” he said.
Sometimes, teammates who played at rival schools still carry strong feelings about when they were opponents.
Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and rookie receiver Kenny Stills went at for the past three years when Vaccaro was at Texas and Stills was at Oklahoma, so naturally they are hyped for next week’s Red River Showdown.
“We’ll probably put something on it, like dinner or maybe pushups,” Stills said. “Whatever it is, my guys will take care of business.”
Vaccaro said he’s confident the Longhorns, despite their struggles this season, will rise to the occasion.
“My team is going through some kind of weird funk right now,” he said. “Last year I was blamed for it. But I wouldn’t ever disrespect my Longhorns by saying they’re not good enough to beat Oklahoma.”
If Stills and Vaccaro are looking for something to put on the game, maybe the loser should get a tattoo of the winner’s mascot — that is, if there’s any room left on the bodies of the two profusely decorated rookies.
And they’d best hope they don’t suffer the humiliation that backup quarterback Luke McCown felt recently when his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs lost to Tulane — alma mater of practice squad QB Ryan Griffin, whose locker is next to his.
“That really hurt,” McCown said. “We led the nation in scoring last year, and now we’ve lost to Tulane. How could we lose to Tulane? Right now, we’re begging to play somebody like Purdue” — Drew Brees’ alma mater, which is 1-4.
McCown and Griffin had a bet. The payoff would have been interesting to see if the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Strief wound up on the losing end.
“I had to wear full-length compression pants (i.e. tights) with nothing over them to the next team meeting,” McCown said. “I looked like a black Spider-Man.
“It would be great to see what Strief looks like.”