The only upset Saturday wasn't on the turf of Ryan Field. By the end of a win over favored Wisconsin, it was high-minded, highly-scholastic Northwestern talking smack. When was the last time you heard that?
Maybe never considering the weight of the mental baggage the Wildcats unloaded after a 17-7 victory.
"This is motivation," Northwestern defensive end Earnest Brown IV said. "Everybody thinks we're a smart school. Nah, forget all that. We need to get our respect. Right now. We just keep grinding. Nobody sees that. Nobody sees under the lights."
Let it be known Northwestern is still a "smart school," a top-10 national university. But it says something two decades into the 21st century that Northwestern can balance academic achievement with athletic excellence. Its 2-year-old football facility is among the best in the country.
Now there is some swagger that's being fueled by what looks like another run at the Big Ten. With the win on Saturday, the Wildcats (5-0) grabbed control of the Big Ten West. Then they played the respect card that is older than the nearby Chicago skyline.
This plea for acclaim was different. The Wildcats were taking their motivation from comments made by ESPN analyst Joey Galloway. In previewing the Wisconsin-Northwestern game earlier this week, the former Ohio State and NFL wide receiver said Northwestern "got a bunch of Rece Davises out there running around."
Davis is ESPN's 54-year-old "College GameDay" host, a Chicago native (who actually attended Alabama).
Clearly though, that was a shot at the Wildcats' athleticism. Not the end of the world, but it fit a stereotype that has cloaked Northwestern for years. Plus, college teams will latch onto pretty much anything when it comes to incentive.
"That really ticked our guys off. I'm not going to lie to you," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I thought it was incredibly disrespectful. It's not the first time. I talked to the guys about putting fuel in the engine."
Northwestern took it out on Wisconsin, sacking quarterback Graham Mertz five times and intercepting him three times as part of five forced turnovers in the game.
"It was about damn time," cornerback Greg Newsome II said of his first career interception.
The cursing didn't end there. Brown stepped up to the Zoom mic.
"Everybody thinking we came off a 3-9 season, we're shit. Nah, forget all that," he said.
"We woke up the country now, and we need our damn respect," Newsome countered.
Seldom have these Wildcats been so salty.
Clearly that 3-9 season in 2019 was an aberration. It was only the fifth losing season for Fitzgerald since he took over at his alma mater in 2006. This year's squad was retooled with the addition of Indiana graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey and the return of 14 starters.
Northwestern stayed undefeated by slowing down a Wisconsin offense that had scored at least 45 points in each of its first two games. It did so with Fitzgerald's specialty -- defense. After running for 341 yards against Michigan, the Badgers were held to 136 on the ground. Wisconsin was held scoreless after the first quarter. Mertz, a redshirt freshman who had it fairly easy in the first two games, looked increasingly uncomfortable.
It was suggested to Northwestern's coach that the defensive effort was a "Pat Fitzgerald special." He demurred. "Nobody's wearing a neck roll so I don't know what that means," Fitzgerald said.
That would be a reference to the coach himself who remains one of Northwestern's best all-time players as a two-time Butkus Award winner at linebacker.
"At the end," Fitzgerald admitted, "we went for the jugular."
"We got a bunch of guys who are going to be potentially All-Big, potentially All-American, potentially in the NFL," he added. "We have one bad year, and it's like 19-whatever again."
There's that bit of history, too. Until Gary Barnett arrived to take Northwestern to the Rose Bowl in 1995, the program had posted 23 consecutive losing seasons. That was Fitzgerald's junior year. It was part of that legacy that ultimately led to Galloway's comments to insert themselves into Saturday's postgame.
"High-level athletes, huh?" Davis said sarcastically to Galloway on Tuesday.
"Very athletic, Rece. That's why I said that," Galloway responded with his own sarcasm.
"It made me laugh at first. It was just funny. That's what they view us as," Newsome said. "That's the narrative we've been having. We're going to keep working; we're going to keep grinding. At the end of the season, they can call us Rece Davises all they want, as soon as we get to the Big Ten championship and win that."
Fitzgerald waited for his moment after the game, taking questions from ABC announcers as his players celebrated behind him.
"How 'bout the Fighting Rece Davises here, huh?" the coach said. "As long as Joey Galloway keeps talking, we'll appreciate it. We heard it loud and clear."
Maybe Galloway's comments were as out of character as the Wildcats' reaction. Like we said, the respect card is older than Pappy Waldorf's cleats. (Northwestern hall of fame coach from 1935-46.)
Galloway did lob some grudging respect the Wildcats perhaps didn't hear.
"They play the game the right way," he said.