The past seven years have all been leading up to this weekend.
It started when Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced in April 2011 that the two football programs would renew their rivalry — dormant since 1995 — with two games, one in 2014 in South Bend and one in 2018 in Evanston.
Five years later, Phillips announced that the Welsh-Ryan Arena would be renovated during the 2017-18 school year and would be set to reopen in the fall of 2018. Earlier this year, University President Morton Schapiro announced men’s basketball would open the arena the same weekend as the Fighting Irish football game.
Throw in women’s basketball playing their first game at new Welsh-Ryan on Sunday and the Big Ten Field Hockey semifinals and finals and this weekend is the biggest sports weekend on campus in at least five years, and possibly the most important in the history of the athletic program.
“It’s a logistical challenge but one we can actually do and look forward to,” Phillips told The Daily in May.
The two main attractions are the football game — set for Saturday night at 6:15 p.m. and the Fighting Irish’s first trip to Ryan Field since 1976 — and the men’s basketball exhibition against McKendree — starting Friday at 7 p.m.
For the football team, the Notre Dame game is surprisingly not as important in the grand scheme of the Cats schedule. Since Saturday’s game is a non-conference affair, the result neither harm nor hurt NU’s chances of making the Big Ten Championship game. Win or loss, NU will be atop the West Division.
For Notre Dame, the stakes are much higher. The Fighting Irish are undefeated and occupy the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. A loss to the Cats will likely result in Notre Dame dropping out of the top four.
“I think most of the times when we play on the road, it’s a really good environment. We expect a tough game,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We know we have to play well. We’ve got to play with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm. We expect the atmosphere to be — that’s why they put these games on TV. They don’t put them on TV because there’s half full crowds and nobody cares. They know the environment is going to be really good.”
The last time the men’s basketball team played at Welsh-Ryan was March 5, 2017 when they lost to No. 16 Purdue by four points. Friday’s exhibition will likely not be as close — McKendree is a Division II school that finished last season with a 12-16 record.
After playing last season at Allstate Arena, NU players have expressed excitement about being able to be back on campus and play in front of a large compact contingent of fans and students. The carnivorous Allstate never reached peak occupancy last season and usually featured a sparse student section.
“Not having to go out to Rosemont will be nice,” senior forward Vic Law said. “Feeling the buzz of the campus before a game and then getting in there and seeing the fans having a nice easy commute over…It’s really good to back in Evanston.”
As for new Welsh-Ryan, the athletic department has announced that Friday’s game is a sellout.
Women’s basketball is also playing their first game at Welsh-Ryan as they will go toe-to-toe with Lewis in an exhibition game Sunday a 2 p.m.
Senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam will lead the Cats heading into the year. Kunaiyi-Akpanah averaged a double-double last season and is a member of the Preseason All-Big Ten team, while Pulliam was the team leader in scoring at 15 points per game last year and was a member of the All-Freshman team.
The field hockey semifinals will be played on Friday with the finals taking place on Sunday with all three games taking place at Lakeside Field. The first semifinal game will be at noon between No. 1 Maryland and No. 4 Ohio State with the second game at 2:30 p.m. between No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Iowa.
The final will be at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Northwestern was eliminated from the tournament last weekend when the Wolverines beat them 3-1.
With six games of major importance — whether it’s with championship aspirations at stake or the grand opening of a new facility — there is no place this weekend that will feature much more athletic drama and tension than Evanston, Illinois.