Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Upset of the Century"


Fifteen years ago today, on September 2, 1995, the Northwestern Wildcats opened their season with a shocking upset at Notre Dame. As the season went along, the Wildcats proved that the outcome of the opener was no fluke. They were headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949.

     For Northwestern's football program, there was nowhere to go but up in 1995. After a 7-4 campaign in 1971, the Wildcats had won a total of 38 games over the next 20 years. In the meantime they’d lost 179 games, for a winning percentage of .175. They’d lost 71 of 75 between 1975 and 1982, including 34 in a row. They’d gone five years without a win in the Big Ten. Attendance had gotten so bad that Northwestern sold a home game to Michigan in 1980 and to Ohio State in 1990.
     A parade of coaches—Alex Agase, John Pont, Rick Venturi, Dennis Green, Francis Peay—had come and gone, but the dreadful legacy of losing had continued unabated. Many observers, including some influential alumni, proposed that the time had come to drop out of the Big Ten (the University of Chicago had done just that when it de-emphasized athletics in the 1930s). Northwestern’s new coach Gary Barnett would have none of it. “We’ll take the purple to Pasadena,” he said when he was hired—referring, of course, to the site of the Rose Bowl.
     His positive attitude notwithstanding, Barnett’s teams started out looking much like those of his predecessors. His first game, on September 5, 1992, was a resounding 42-7 loss to Notre Dame. The Wildcats finished the year 3-8. They slipped to 2-9 in 1993, failing to win a conference game. In 1994, Northwestern won three and tied one of its first seven games. But, with visions of a bowl bid dancing in their heads, the Wildcats took a giant step backward. They were blown out in each of the last four games, and finished 3-7-1 (2-6 in the Big Ten).

     The 1995 Wildcats opened the season on September 2 at Notre Dame. The Irish had bombed the Wildcats in each of Barnett’s first three years, by a combined score of 111-34. As Rick Telander wrote, the Irish were “supposed to be on their way to a national title, the Wildcats to grad school.” Most of the 59,075 Irish faithful who came out to enjoy the perfect sun-kissed afternoon were only mildly perturbed when the first half ended with Northwestern leading 10-9; they were confident that the upstarts would shortly be put in their place. Those fans who’d wagered on the Irish were somewhat more concerned, for they’d had to lay 28 points to the Wildcats.
     Early in the third quarter, 26-yard touchdown pass from Steve Schnur to D’Wayne Bates put Northwestern ahead 17-9. The scoring “drive” had covered 55 yards in 54 seconds, on just three plays. For the rest of the third quarter and most of the fourth, the Wildcats’ defense held firm. “Notre Dame has a great system,” explained Barnett. “They’ve used it for years. Part of a system is that it’s predictable. We’ve known where they were going; we just haven’t been able to stop them. We physically couldn’t get there. This time, we had guys there who could make the play. And they did.” Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald and safety Hudhaifa Ismaeli each made big plays to stifle Irish advances.
     Northwestern was forced to punt from its own end zone midway through the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame soon turned the favorable field position into a touchdown that made it 17-15 with 6:16 left to play. On the try for a two-point conversion, though, Irish quarterback Ron Powlus got tangled up with his own center and fell to the turf. The Wildcats still clung to the lead.
     On the next Irish possession, it was fourth and two when Randy Kinder took a handoff from Powlus at his own 44-yard line and ran smack into Northwestern defensive tackle Matt Rice. “Hindsight is always 20/20,” Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said later. “We had two timeouts left. We could have held them and gotten the ball back. We probably should have punted.” The Wildcats took over with 4:02 remaining, and the Irish never got their hands on the ball again. Tailback Darnell Autry saw to that; he carried the ball repeatedly as the minutes dwindled down, and his 26-yard burst in the closing seconds ensured Northwestern’s victory. He finished the day with 33 rushes for 160 yards.
     To describe the outcome as stunning would be an understatement. The Sun-Times called it “the upset of the century.” Holtz called it “very disappointing.” It was the Wildcats’ first triumph over Notre Dame since 1962 and their first season-opening win since 1975. Kicker Sam Valenzisi tore up a chunk of sod for a souvenir. For Fitzgerald and offensive guard Ryan Padgett, among others, the victory was particularly sweet. They had always wanted to play for Notre Dame, but the talent-laden Irish didn’t want them. “The reason I came to Northwestern,” said Fitzgerald, “was to beat Notre Dame.”

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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