EVANSTON — Nathan Anderson trudged up to Gate T at Ryan Field three hours before kickoff. He held a gallon of sweet tea in one hand and a bag of chips in the other.

Nathan, a junior at Northwestern, lives for game day. But he’s stuck in a city that hardly has a football culture to speak of.

Nathan rarely sees a sellout at Ryan Field. The smallest stadium in the Big Ten seats a capacity crowd of 47,130 — a mere 62,771 less than at Michigan Stadium. He knew Saturday would be different, but it wouldn’t be pretty: Michigan was coming to town.

So he arrived three hours early to sit outside the student entrance, which opens 90 minutes before kickoff, and sat outside Gate T for hours, wishing to feel the typical college football atmosphere.

The minds are brilliant, the teams are good — but the two don’t mix. More students in Evanston stroll around in business suits on football Saturdays than in Wildcat purple.

Along the front of the stadium, a banner proclaims, “Northwestern: Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” This season, Illinois countered with a rival campaign to claim the Fighting Illini as “Kings of Chicago.”

In proximity, Northwestern is Chicago’s team. But in reality, due to the small student body, Northwestern has the second-fewest alumni living in the Chicagoland area of any Big Ten school.

In the early hours on Saturday morning, block ‘M’s lined the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Tailgates dotted every open parking lot on campus — all of them hoisting Michigan flags and tents.

Northwestern students receive football tickets as part of their tuition package — attendance is first come, first served. No one was there to battle Nathan, as he sipped his sweet tea and waited for the gate to swing open.

Once the cold lake wind and snow begin swirling over Evanston, Nathan said showing up an hour before the game would still guarantee a spot in the front 15 rows.

The Michigan game marked the first home game of the scholastic year with the students on campus for the fall semester. The situation for the team — and the fans — was clear:

If we don’t win this game, nobody will come back to the next one.

So they came. The stadium filled to the brim. An attendance of 47,330 was announced.

On the sidewalk bordering Central Street, directly in front of the stadium, a pair of Michigan fans were searching for tickets.

“I’ve got two for $180 each,” one scalper said.

“I went to the Michigan-Notre Dame game and got two for $150, man,” the fan said.

“Yeah, well this is a big game, too.”

Not for Michigan. But it was giant for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Wildcat football.

The students and Northwestern faithful faced an opposing sideline nearly 70-percent filled with Michigan fans. That was hard. It was the Little Big House.

But then they suffered the same second-half heartbreak the Wildcats’ have conditioned them to expect.

In the post-game press conference, Fitzgerald knew what everyone was thinking. He ended his opening statement by pleading with students to return, to remember the first-half Wildcats.

“There was great fan support tonight, especially our students,” Fitzgerald said. “It was an absolutely outstanding environment, one not only that we thank them for but one we expect of them as we move forward.

“So we’ll see them back here in a couple weeks for homecoming.”

But many won’t be back.

Before the game, one student remarked on the student section’s 2011 T-shirts.

“We should have a new motto on them,” she said. “How about, ‘ All we do is almost win?’ ”

Michigan coach Brady Hoke doesn’t have to coddle the student section. Fitzgerald has to coddle the entire fan base. Michigan students don’t have to be told by a head coach what is expected of them.

It’s almost hard to fathom a scenario where college students would choose not to attend a full slate of games they’ve already paid for. But that’s the Michigan difference — or one of them.

At Michigan, the expectations are from within, not beamed down from Hoke or Athletic Director Dave Brandon. It’s why Michigan, unlike Northwestern, has home-field advantage. It’s why every home game since November 8, 1975 has drawn a crowd of more than 100,000.

“It was a good environment, we just let our fans down,” said Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. “We’ve got to play a lot better than that.”

The difference is that when the Wildcats let their fans down, they don’t come back. Denard Robinson can always expect 100,000 surrounding the field at Michigan Stadium.

We’re lucky at Michigan. We’re blessed.

Don’t take the Big House experience for granted. Nathan wouldn’t.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@michigandaily.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt

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