First, a buddy and I decided to see the beginning of Year Two of the Chris Collins Era at Northwestern, as the Wildcats hosted Houston Baptist University. It was...not pretty. The Huskies came out running what AC Brian James called "a completely different offense" and the ‘Cats struggled from the field. Add in a strong second half performance by Alex Olah and some timely mustache work by senior transfer C Jeremiah Kreisberg, though, and Northwestern escaped with a 65-58 win that, for the last four minutes or so, was largely academic [heh].
The experienced players for Northwestern--JerShon Cobb, Tre Demps, and Alex Olah--underwhelmed for the majority of the game, but the freshmen--Bryant McIntosh in particular, but also Vic Law--shined in their first home game. McIntosh's vision and Law's raw athleticism (he threw down a dunk I've never seen a Northwestern player even come close to) will cause problems in Big Ten play. This team might not be an NIT contender just yet, but they'll be exciting. And how about that new video board?
Early Saturday morning brought high time for us to make our way to South Bend. Not wanting to drive, we cabbed down to Millennium Station to catch the 8:40am South Shore Line to South Bend. Now, obviously we'd be out tailgating by 8:40am for a 2:30pm game under normal circumstances. This necessitated #RailGate:
Despite what we suspect was chicanery from the South Shore conductors (they shunted us into Car #4, "probably a good spot so you don't disturb people," sticking us with an absolute Richard of a conductor who was quite rude at every turn), the four of us killed a case of Hamm's and enjoyed several pulls of Fireball on the ride down, yukking it up with some very gracious Notre Dame fans as we went. So much, in fact, that we had to put the empty Hamm's in a trash bag that hung from the luggage rack, thus producing...
With a nice buzz going, we were picked up from South Bend International Regional Something Airport by our friend, where upon we walked through the hellish postindustrial landscape of South Bend, finding ourselves in a parking lot with about 30 other like-minded Northwestern fans.
We played beer pong, of course. At some point we'd decided it was a funny idea to make it snow pong, so that happened for a while. Because why not, right? We NUMBalums were drinking it down and reminding ourselves we had no expectations-despite all the 1995 jokes, it's no exaggeration to say 95% of us expected defeat and were there for the experience of Catholic Disneyland. The few Notre Dame fans who sidled over our way were gracious, if not really concerned with our presence. Making our way through the meat of the Notre Dame tailgate lots, we happened to run into another friend, whereupon we enjoyed a shot with her. Again, casual indifference to mild scorn from our Irish hosts.
The First Half
Things looked bleak when Everett Golson took the fourth play from scrimmage and scooted 61 yards to put the Irish up 7-0 within :45. While the ‘Cats responded quickly, with redshirt freshman Matt Alviti taking a designed QB draw in from two yards, out, Notre Dame capitalized on a strip'n'score. Facing another seven-point deficit pending a Kyle Brindza PAT, Northwestern did this:
It was a harbinger of shenanigans to come. Notre Dame continued to chew up yards in short amounts of time, with Will Fuller being a favorite target of Golson on the day (9 catches for 159 yards and 3 TDs). Northwestern capitalized on a tipped pass, with freshman LB sensation Anthony Walker rumbling 65 yards down to the four and freshman RB Justin Jackson diving in on the next play to put the ‘Cats ahead. A methodical Notre Dame drive capped off by a Fuller touchdown marked the last time Northwestern led for over thirty minutes as Notre Dame took a 27-23 lead into the half.
The Second Half
After a Jack Mitchell field goal on Northwestern's opening drive made it 27-26 Irish, the teams traded punts and fumbles before Fuller's second touchdown gave the Irish an eight-point lead. A Northwestern drive ended in Mitchell setting another career high with a 46-yarder, but hope was fading in sections 115-118, as predictable playcalling with Alviti and a stalling run game gave little hope the ‘Cats could actually find the end zone again.
Then Northwestern recovered a Chris Brown fumble in the end zone. Brown had been ruled down by contact, but booth review overturned the call, giving the ‘Cats the ball at the 20. A Jackson burst for 14 gave us a window of belief, until Trevor Siemian was picked, the INT was returned to the NU 13 after a penalty, and Golson found Fuller on the third play of the drive. Facing a twelve-point deficit pending the PAT, a moral victory seemed all but certain up in the purple section.
Brian Kelly opted to go for two.
Let's get this out of the way right now: hindsight or not, that is bad coaching. Kelly admitted after the game that he knew there was no advantage to going for it, but did it anyway. We went nuts after the stop. Belief was creeping back in, and there was hope yet again.
As predictably as ever, Notre Dame then blocked a 43-yard Jack Mitchell effort. The dream faded. But it didn't die.
A Brindza shanked punt gave Northwestern the ball with 6:08 left, and Siemian marched the offense down the field with an up-tempo spread offense that left us shaking our heads. Where had that been since the first half of the Penn State win? Siemian ran three times on the drive for 26 yards, exploiting Notre Dame's commitment to stopping Jackson and Treyvon Green for long gains before recognizing an empty middle of the field and walking into the end zone untouched to make it 40-35. The dream lived.
Pat Fitzgerald drew criticism after the Michigan loss (from fans such as myself) for running an unoriginal 2-point conversation which the Wolverines sniffed out. Had Notre Dame not been called for pass interference on the ‘Cats 2-point attempt, I would've been apoplectic: the WR reverse pass was the same play that produced an Andrew Brewer-to-Brendan Mitchell 2-pt conversation in the 2010 Outback Bowl. But a second chance saw Warren Long plow straight ahead for two, and the ‘Cats were within a field goal. The dream lived again.
A weird pooch kickoff gave Notre Dame the ball at their 40, and Northwestern-after using their second timeout-got the Irish to 3rd-and-9 at the NU 48, with a stop giving the ‘Cats the ball. What happened next would have served the ol' Notre Dame NarrativeTM: a suspect pass interference call on Jimmy Hall gave Notre Dame the ball with a :10 difference between game clock and possible play clock runoff. Had Notre Dame taken two knees and run around a bit on 3rd down, the game would likely have ended.
As an aside, the Notre Dame clock operator. My goodness. Twice (possibly three times), the referee took to asking him to put time back on the clock, as two to three seconds would tick off after each whistle blew plays dead. Fitzgerald was in the ear of the side judge nonstop in the fourth quarter, and the referees-for all the criticism of them-refused to let anyone's incompetence but their own stand in the way of a Northwestern comeback.
Brian Kelly struck again.
Senior captain and RB Cam McDaniel, who had not fumbled all season and had a reputation as the sure-handed Notre Dame back, coughed it up with 1:28 to play. Northwestern took over from their own 28.
It was Ron Dayne in 1997. It was Anthony Thomas in 2000. Every single fan in that section knew the stories, and if they didn't, an alumn(us/ae) who was invariably "here in 1995, too," was quick to explain it to them.
But fate wasn't enough. The dream of another upset--at this point, in hindsight, seemingly destined--was too faint. The ‘Cats, even this game, had showed maddeningly inconsistency in driving the football. We had even less faith that the ‘Cats could pull it off here. How wrong we were.
Siemian completed five consecutive passes, four to Kyle Prater, as the ‘Cats drove to the Notre Dame 28 before stalling out. After Kelly tried to ice Mitchell, our much-maligned (/waves) preferred walk-on lined up yet again. A make here would vault him into the pantheon of Wildcats-in-South-Bend deities. Every Northwestern fan in my section had their arm around each other, a hand in their hand, a silent prayer being offered up to a Supreme Being who you would've figured had differing allegiances. It was the hope, the faith which this program had been devoid of all season, recaptured and focused on that one kick.
Good from 45 yards. Pandemonium. Audible chants of "Let's go ‘Cats!" on NBC. Overtime.
Winning the toss and electing to go second, Northwestern came out and dared Golson to beat them with his arm. He didn't. Brindza trotted on.
The legions of purple faithful erupted. Here was the chance to go for the throat, to pound the ball in, to grind the yards out of Notre Dame and hit paydirt. Even with Jack Mitchell having the game of his career, no fan anywhere near me wanted to see Pat Fitzgerald play for the kick.
Of course, that's exactly what Fitz did. And Notre Dame knew it was coming. Jackson for no gain, Jackson for a loss of three, Long for four. On comes Mitchell. 41 yards.
The feeling of watching that ball sail through the uprights, true as any kick Jeff Budzien ever hit, seeing Northwestern players flood the field... Indescribable. Northwestern fans of all ages, graduating classes, backgrounds, hugging each other, shaking hands, losing their minds, all together in the stands. We sang "Go U Northwestern" together. We hugged some more. We vowed to return, should Notre Dame ever continue this series (they won't). We hugged and shook hands goodbye, unable to find the words. Here was a bizarre repeat of the win that defined the rebirth of Northwestern football, projected forward nineteen years and stripped of its defense, yet still somehow quintessentially Northwestern.
None of this guarantees a bowl game for the ‘Cats. None of this guarantees that the program will break out of its slump. But this gives another generation of ‘Cats fans a game-THE game-that they can say "I was there when-"
We #RailGated on the way back, too. How could we not? At times, as the bleak, snow-covered landscape of Indiana whizzed past us, we would go a few minutes without speaking, just drinking the Commodore Perry IPA that was on sale for $7. When we'd catch each other's eyes, though, we kicked right back into the same line: "How the fuck did that just happen?" An answer wasn't necessary, though.
Just when there's no faith left, this program finds a way. And I was there when.