STEPHEN J. CARRERA Enlarge
COLUMBUS — Jimmy Hall grew up in a classic northwest Ohio home — he an Ohio State fan and his mother, Lori, a Michigan fan.
But these days, the Sylvania family has rallied behind another Big Ten school, trading their scarlet, gray, maize, and blue for one uniting color: Purple.
Jimmy is a junior safety for Northwestern while his younger brother, Nate, will be joining him next fall. Nate, a senior defensive back at Southview, committed to the Wildcats in June.
They are part of the latest revival of Northwestern football. Saturday night, Jimmy will play in the biggest game of his college career — and the most anticipated showdown in Evanston since 1995 — when the fourth-ranked Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) visit No. 16 Northwestern (4-0).
“We had the bye last week, so we spent a lot of time to prepare and kind of build up to this game,” said Hall, whose father, James, was a receiver at the University of Toledo. “We’re really excited.”
In truth, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hall has spent the past three-plus years building to this opportunity. He was recruited as a slot receiver, switched to safety during his redshirt season, and earned his place mostly as a key special times contributor the past two seasons.
After a strong second half last year that included a touchdown-saving pass breakup in Northwestern’s Gator Bowl win against Mississippi State, he is the Wildcats’ top nickelback and braced for a major test against a spread-you-out OSU offense.
“I’m looking at getting a lot of time this Saturday,” he said in a phone interview.
In all, Hall — a former three-star prospect who starred as a receiver and defensive back on Southview’s unbeaten state championship team in 2008 — has seven tackles and a pass breakup in four games this season.
“Jimmy’s been really coming on,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “The last half of last year, he earned a role on our defense.
“He has been a very solid special teams player for us and earned a bigger and bigger role. He played very, very well in the bowl game, and he’s just continued to improve. I still think his best football is ahead of him here.”
Hall hopes the same is true for Northwestern. An education major, he chose Northwestern over offers from West Virginia, Kansas, and Colorado, among others, because of the school’s academic reputation. But he also had faith in the foundation that Fitzgerald was constructing.
After the Wildcats were 13-13 in his first two seasons, they went 10-3 last year and won their first bowl game since 1949. They have won seven straight heading into Saturday night’s visit from the Buckeyes — a nationally televised prime-time stage that will include ESPN’s College GameDay’s first trek to campus in 18 years.
“There was already excitement, and when they announced GameDay is going to be here, I think there’s just that much more,” Hall said. “Playing big games like this where you’ve got the whole country watching is a lot of fun.”