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B1G Historical Perspective: The Upset

Looking back to September 2, 1995 - the day football was discovered in Evanston, Illinois


Continuing a theme from basketball season, I’ll be ‘writing’ about some historical Big Ten football moments throughout the season. The modus operandi is one school per week throughout the football season. For the first installment I turned the clock back 23 years to a Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Indiana: a game that brought the sport of football to the shores of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois.

The 1995 college football opening week featured, as one would expect, the usual fare of the name-brand teams opening at home against the Directional States of the world; with perhaps a marquee game or two mixed in. Northwestern’s trip down the Indiana Toll Road to face Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish seemed to fit into the former category. Gary Barnett’s Wildcats were coming off of a 3-7-1 record for the 1994 season, while Notre Dame - despite coming off of an uncharacteristically bad 6-5-1 campaign - was ranked #9 in the Associated Press preseason poll.

Thus the stage was set for a game that many thought would be over by halftime. Northwestern hadn’t won a season opener in 20 years; Notre Dame hadn’t lost one in 9 (during Lou Holtz’s first season). In their three previous meetings (including the 1994 opener at Soldier Field) Notre Dame had outscored Northwestern 111-34. Las Vegas established Notre Dame as 28 point favorites. Most were thinking they would have to sit through 3 hours of Pat Haden’s glowing color commentary during NBC’s coverage. Just one problem, the Northwestern Wildcats had other ideas.

Northwestern players celebrating their 17-15 victory over Notre Dame
Phil Greer / Chicago Tribune

As the game got underway, Northwestern scored first on a Steve Schnur touchdown pass, with receiver Dave Beazley running into the Notre Dame Marching Band. Notre Dame answered with a touchdown of their own; however, in an omen of things to come the Irish missed the extra point. The two teams traded field goals and at halftime Northwestern held a surprising 10-9 lead. Most people (this 29 year old ‘writer’ included) thought Lou Holtz would rip into his team at halftime and Notre Dame would pull away. However, Northwestern players such as receiver D’Wayne Bates, tailback Darnell Autry, the aforementioned Steve Schnur, and a junior linebacker named Pat Fitzgerald weren’t buying into this.

In the second half the Wildcats extended their lead as Bates recorded his first pass completion, a touchdown pass from Schnur to extend Northwestern’s lead to 17-9. The problem for Northwestern was this was Notre Dame, at Notre Dame, and the so-called ‘luck of the Irish’ was in play. This seemed to be the case when with about 6 minutes to go Notre Dame scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 17-15. Lou Holtz opted to go for 2 points to tie the game. However, ‘all-world’ quarterback Ron Powlus tripped over an offensive linemen’s feet on the 2-point conversion. Northwestern kept their 17-15 lead, as it appeared that the Leprechaun was wearing purple.

Notre Dame got the ball back and with about 4 minutes to go faced a fourth down and 2 from near midfield. Rather than punting the ball, Lou Holtz opted to go for the first down. On the play Wildcats defensive tackle Matt Rice stuffed Notre Dame tailback Randy Kinder, turning the ball over on downs. Northwestern was able to run out the clock, converting a key third and seven on a Schnur-to-Bates completion, and hang on for the 17-15 victory.

Northwestern head coach Gary Barnett and Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz following the Wildcats 17-15 victory
Phil Greer / Chicago Tribune

It was Northwestern’s defensive performance that led the Wildcats to this improbable victory in South Bend, their first victory over Notre Dame since 1962. Defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden’s gameplan held the highly recruited Ron Powlus to just 175 yards passing and the Fighting Irish to just 3-for-13 on third down conversions. Offensively, Northwestern tailback Darnell Autry had a big game rushing for 162 yards against the Notre Dame defense. Lou Holtz made no excuses telling Gary Barnett after the game, “You guys deserved to win”.

Northwestern had the all-to-obvious letdown the next week in their home opener in Evanston, losing to Miami of Ohio (led by future Wildcats head coach Randy Walker) 30-28. This turned out to be the last game the Wildcats lost until the Rose Bowl; which Northwestern earned the invitation to after Ohio State lost to Michigan (right on cue during the John Cooper era) 31-23. This set the stage for Northwestern to return to Pasadena for the first time since 1949, which was confirmed with the Wildcats knocking off Purdue 23-8 in West Lafayette.

This major upset victory in South Bend permanently changed the fortunes of a Northwestern football team that had endured a 34 game losing streak in the early 1980s; with the nadir being when someone painted below the Interstate 94 sign in Illinois “Northwestern 0”. And now, 23 years later, leading the Wildcats onto the football field each week is the very same Pat Fitzgerald who set the stage that early September afternoon for winning the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, and being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.