Northwestern Wildcats football is not very good.
I’m sorry if this news shocks you, or if we can chalk this up to “a mild difference of opinion,” but I am of the opinion that Northwestern is, in fact, not only bad but actively getting worse.
Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to celebrate the teams—and there are 23 of them that Sports Reference classifies as “Major Opponents”!—who have played Northwestern but never defeated the Purple and White:
“No Longer a D-I Program” Edition
Lombard College Olive (1-0)
Games Played: 23-0 (1903)
In 1903, the Fighting Methodists stopped the powerful Olive of Lombard by a score of 23-0. The Universalist-affiliated college—whose football team went 7-0 in 1921—went bust in 1930 and was absorbed by Knox College and Meadville Lombard Theological School.
Washington University in St. Louis Bears (1-0)
Games Played: 23-0 (1903)
The proud lone member of the school that wait-listed me not once, but twice, was “outclassed” by the purple “so far as weight was concerned” when the two Midwestern private schools met on the gridiron in 1903. Three first-half touchdowns made it easy sailing for Northwestern.
Wabash College Little Giants (1-0)
Games Played: 5-0 (1905)
The Little Giants—who play for the Monon Bell with D-III rival DePauw—were on their third “Big Nine” team in eight days, per the Indianapolis Star. Yet they held firm, allowing just one touchdown to a “Barry” for Northwestern in a 5-0 moral victory. Confusingly, the newspaper account of this game says it ended with halves of 20 and 25 minutes, respectively. Maybe that was to account for the time difference between The Region and Chicago. Who knows.
Dartmouth Big Green (1-0)
Games Played: 27-6 (1928)
The Wildcats’ 27-6 clubbing of Dartmouth earned the headline “45,000 watch Wildcats claw foe to shreds” in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, but that was overshadowed by the disgusting news that Illinois had won the Big Ten title:
Amusingly, that article recounts 10,000 Dartmouth supporters in attendance—some things never change, whether it’s Dyche Stadium or Ryan Field—as the Purple controlled the ball and rolled up three times the yardage of their verdant visitors.
Games Played: 21-12 (1934)
Apparently the 25,000 at this one included a number of Boy Scouts in attendance, thus confirming Northwestern has been committing war crimes for a number of years now. From the Chicago Tribune’s recap:
It was one of the wildest opening games ever played in Dyche stadium. Both elevens disregarded general fundamental rules for team play with the result that record totals of passes attempted and completed filled the book of statistics. [...]
Each eleven made 11 first downs. The two teams tried 36 forward passes, 10 by Northwestern and 26 by Marquette. [...]
The officials also registered a new high for vigilance. There were 25 penalties, not including those declined. Fourteen, for a loss of 90 yards, were called on Northwestern, while Marquette was penalized 85 yards for 11 violations. Northwestern was penalized 12 times for offside, backs in motion, and extra time out.
The most unusual fact was that Northwestern fumbled only once.
Some things, at least, never change.
Colgate Raiders (1-0)
Games Played: 39-20 (1949)
Northwestern had, when the Red Raiders rolled into town, thrown away the goodwill of its 1949 Rose Bowl with three straight losses. On “Dads Day”, the Wildcats rushed for 351 yards and racked up a 20-0 first-quarter lead before coasting to victory.
Drake Bulldogs (2-0)
Games Played: 40-6 (1916), 33-0 (1938)
After a slow start in 1916, the Purple, led by captain Paddy Driscoll, trounced the outmanned Bulldogs in Evanston. Drake receivers caught a number of passes but were particularly given to the drops.
The latter game, featuring Northwestern using its second- and third-string players most of the game, appears to have at least one thing in common with modern games at Ryan Field—no one was there:
The “Barely Still an FBS Program” Tier
While there is only one team currently in this tier, there could be a second added in 2023, when Jerry Kill’s New Mexico State Aggies come to Evanston for a thrilled October 28 tilt.
Massachusetts Minutemen (1-0)
Games Played: 45-6 (2019)
Back when Northwestern could beat even the shittiest teams in its non-conference schedule, no matter how bad the season was, the Wildcats derped their way to a 45-6 victory. I apparently took it well.
“Wait, there are some MAC teams we haven’t lost to?” Edition
Central Michigan Chippewas (1-0)
Games Played: 30-25 (2010)
Ball State Cardinals (1-0)
Games Played: 24-19 (2015)
Eastern Michigan Eagles (3-0)
Games Played: 14-6 (2006), 26-14 (2007), 27-24 (2009)
Some really illustrious moments in here. Consider, if you would be so kind:
- The 2006 victory over EMU was Pat Fitzgerald’s first win at Ryan Field—the ‘Cats went to Oxford and defeated Miami (Ohio) in an emotional first game after the death of Randy Walker, then lost to Chip Kelly’s FCS powerhouse New Hampshire by two scores the next week.
- Running it back with the EMUs the following year, the ‘Cats played a sad road game with the all-green-wearing Eagles at Ford Field, digging a 7-0 hole and running gadget plays to set up a field goal, finally winning 26-14 before what Wikipedia lists as an exact 10,000 fans:
- In my freshman year, 2009, Stefan Demos hit a 49-yard game-winner to see off the EMUs as time expired. Northwestern had blown a 21-0 second quarter lead. It was a disgusting game and I’m mad I committed time to thinking about it.
- I remember nothing about the CMU game from 2010 despite having been there in the band, and I’m very relieved for it.
- Northwestern tried to choke away that Balls Tate game, but long live the fraudulent 2015 Wildcats—I drove to Tampa to watch that Outback Bowl nonsense.
Of the other MACtion Northwestern has been involved in, the ‘Cats used Northern Illinois to end The Streak in 1982 but lost to them in 2014, lost their first-ever game to Ohio back in 1973, split a pair with PJ Fleck’s Western Michigan in 2013 and 2016, and are actually 3-6 against Miami (Ohio), 1-2 against Bowling Green (including the 2003 Motor City Bowl), and famously 0-1 against Akron. They have never played Toledo, Kent State, or Buffalo.
The “Other Mid-Majors” Tier
Wyoming Cowboys (1-0)
Games Played: 27-22 (1979)
The year of 1979 certainly has produced some surprises for the oddsmakers.
Jane Byrne beat the Democratic Machine to become mayor of Chicago, Margaret Thatcher was elected first woman prime minister, and—wonder of wonders—Northwestern University won a football game.
So began the Chicago Tribune recap of Northwestern’s 27-22 win over Wyoming, notably the last game Northwestern won before losing 34 straight games. Wyoming, in Bill Lewis’s final season in charge, fumbled seven times, losing three. It was the only game Rick Venturi ever won as head coach of the Wildcats. He was sure excited:
Imagine how he’d have celebrated if he knew it’d be the only game he ever won in Evanston. You can watch reels from this game, hosted in the Northwestern archives, here: Reel 1, Reel 2, Reel 3, and Reel 4, including Venturi celebrating at 10:30 of Reel 4.
UNLV Rebels (3-0)
Games Played: 41-7 (1998), 37-28 (2001), 30-14 (2019)
All three of Northwestern’s matchups with the Rebels have been rare bright spots in seasons marked by struggles:
- D’Wayne Bates made his triumphant return a year after breaking his leg, racking up 156 yards and two scores in a performance the Tribune described as “like a mailman trying to shake terriers from his trouser cuff.” Sportswriting ain’t what it used to be. Anyway, the ‘Cats went 3-9 (0-8 Big Ten).
- #16 Northwestern opened 2001 on the road at UNLV, slowly pulling away from UNLV behind the three passing TDs and two rushing scores of Zak Kustok. The ‘Cats struggled the rest of the year, beating Duke on the road and tripping up only #23 Michigan State and lowly Minnesota en route to a 4-7 (2-6) collapse.
- In 2019 the Rebels were Northwestern’s lone win of the first two months of the season before the aforementioned pasting of UMass, as the offense had been thrown into disarray following TJ Green’s season-ending injury at Stanford the week before. 3-9 (1-8), and I don’t want to talk about it.
I hope we never play UNLV again.
Navy Midshipmen (3-0)
Games Played: 22-0 (1950), 16-7 (1951), 49-40 (2002)
I’m thankful Navy isn’t on any future Northwestern schedules, as the ‘Cats would likely lose to them to demonstrate just how much Pat Fitzgerald (0-1 vs. Army) Respects the Troops, though Fitz was linebackers coach on the 2002 squad that went to Annapolis and won a back-and-forth thriller with Navy, 49-40.
Anyway. Northwestern’s quarterback in 1950 was Dick Flowers, he said, maturely. That 22-0 shutout of the Naval Academy also gave us the excellent headline you see at the right.
Again, sportswriting ain’t what it used to be.
The ‘Cats won the return trip to Evanston, 16-7, pantsing the Middies with a pair of long runs:
How about some Power 5 Teams? Tier
Washington State Cougars (1-0)
Games Played: 29-28 (1958)
After winning no games at home in 1957 as part of an 0-9 campaign under Ara Parseghian, Northwestern rebounded in their opener against Pac-9 runner-up Washington State. The ‘Cats survived a Cougars passing attack that rolled up 303 yards on 14 completions, relying on 176 rushing yards from Ron Burton and getting the winning point on a two-point conversion that made it 29-12 early in the fourth.
Little did they know how crucial that point would be.
South Carolina Gamecocks (1-0)
Games Played: 37-20 (1962)
The win over the ACC’s Gamecocks earned the ‘Cats not only top billing on the Tribune’s Sunday sports section, but a comparison for QB Tom Myers to ‘Cats legend Otto Graham.
Myers—who Sports Illustrated lauded as “Ara Parseghian’s Gamble” when the coach tabbed him as the Wildcats’ starter while still an ineligible frosh after scooping him from under Woody Hayes’s nose—finished the season throwing for 1537 yards, a 59.5% completion rate, and 13 TDs to 14 INTs after Parseghian retooled the entire Northwestern offense to work around his star quarterback. The ‘Cats opened their campaign with the first of six straight wins that saw them climb all the way to #1 in the polls for two straight weeks. A road loss to #8 Wisconsin crashed Parseghian’s men out of the top spot, and a loss to Michigan State the following week relegated Northwestern to third, behind Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Parseghian would leave Northwestern two seasons later, and Myers appeared in two NFL games for the Detroit Lions, throwing for 16 total yards and 2 INTs.
But go read that Sports Illustrated feature. It’s worth it.
Kansas Jayhawks (2-0)
Games Played: 28-20 (2003), 20-17 (2004)
In heavy rain to open the 2003 season, Northwestern capitalized on five Kansas turnovers to drop Mark Mangino’s career record to that point to 2-11. Read the recap and tell me it doesn’t sound like exactly what you’d expect out of a Northwestern-Kansas game.
In the return leg in Evanston, the ‘Cats salvaged a sloppy non-conference slate—a wild 48-45 OT loss at C-USA also-ran TCU and a 30-21 home loss to eventual Sun Bowl champion Arizona State—by struggling out a 20-17 home win over the Jayhawks when a 43-yard game-tying field goal sailed wide right.
Kansas State Wildcats (2-0)
Games Played: 21-0 (1938), 51-3 (1941)
Wisely, after seeing that allowing the Purple Wildcats to play one another caused* World War II, the NCAA has presumably banned this game from ever happening again.
* I dunno, I’m not a history professor.
The 1938 encounter involved three Northwestern passing touchdowns from left halfback Jack Ryan and three interceptions from the Purple defense. Wesley Fry—the K-State coach for the 1938 loss—later came to Northwestern, where he was an assistant coach from 1940-46 and the head baseball coach from 1944-46 before moving to Cal with Pappy Waldorf.
The 1941 matchup, by all accounts, was a laugher, as Otto Graham scored three touchdowns—including one on a 90-yard punt return—and threw for another, a 64-yard strike to Ike Kepford. Only thing NU did wrong in this one was miss five extra points, which, hilarious. See for yourself:
Kentucky Wildcats (2-0)
Games Played: 7-0 (1928), 24-23 (2017 Music City Bowl)
Facing the Fighting Colonels in 1928, Northwestern’s defense rendered the Kentucky attack largely inept outside a pair of drives that ended in fumbles. It was, to the Chicago Tribune, Northwestern’s suspect playcalling in advantageous situations—including a triple (?!?!?) reverse that lost five yards—that kept this from being more lopsided, though the Tribune did note Kentucky had the support of its governor, F.D. Sampson, a cheering section of about 1,000, and a 100-piece band “which played My Old Kentucky home at every opportunity.”
I still have not forgiven my wife for making us leave the Music City Bowl where Clayton Thorson shredded his knee. Watching that Kentucky 2-point conversion to lose the game while I was about .23 in a bar on Broadway was...an experience.
Games Played: 34-20 (2013 Gator Bowl)
I have not stopped crying those tears of joy and I likely never will.
That Trevor Siemian rushing touchdown, though.
“OK but, like, any big names?” Tier
Oregon Ducks (1-0)
Games Played: 14-10 (1974)
The 1974 Webfoots, for what it’s worth, produced what is “widely considered to be the worst season in program history,” per Wikipedia.
Why’s that? Well, despite the best efforts of eventual San Diego Padres outfielder Don Reynolds and a senior quarterback named Norv Turner, the Webfoots, under Don Read, had moved to “the fretful Oregon veer, an offense for tomorrow but one the Ducks must live with today,” per the Eugene Register-Guard.
Northwestern blitzed the inexperienced Oregon offensive line “15, maybe 20 times,” HC John Pont recounted to the Chicago Tribune, which noted with amusement that after QB Mitch Anderson—who threw two touchdown passes—”unwisely chose to throw a bomb against a 19 m.p.h. wind on third down and six”:
It was intercepted and Pont screamed at Anderson on the sidelines for so long he almost didn’t see the Wildcats’ Neil Little intercept back two plays later.
This was the only non-conference win of 1974 for second-year ‘Cats skipper John Pont—the aforementioned loser to Ohio in 1973—his first non-conference win as the ‘Cats head man, and one of only two non-conference wins over his 12-43 (10-31 B1G) tenure (the other a 1975 10-3 win over NIU).* All hail the legend of the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers. Read, for the Webfoots, lasted just three years in Eugene, going 9-24 before being fired and moving to the Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls.
* Ed. note: When I read approximately 100 old-timey box scores for this nonsense, phrases like “the ‘Cats head man” start to infiltrate my writing. And I think I like that. Your thoughts?
Texas Longhorns (1-0)
Games Played: 3-0 (1942)
Northwestern won a football game from Texas here Saturday afternoon, and you’d never guess the score.
“Obscure Sub Kicks Field Goal in Fourth,” continued the Austin American, as a fourth-quarter field goal by Alan Pick marked the only scoring of this World War II-era triumph, the only win for the 1-9 Wildcats and, somehow, one of only two losses for the 1942 Southwest Conference and Cotton Bowl champion Longhorns under Dana X. Bible. The loss was front-page news in Austin, perhaps noteworthy considering the “World War II” thing going on.
(How you really know this is an event that happened in the past: page 11 of the American recounted that “Following the recent regulation requiring all University of Texas students to take one full year’s course in American history before graduation, the university’s history department is girding itself for an influx of several thousand additional students.” Ah, to be in 1942 again, he thought, wistfully.)
“Texas met a team that was its equal in speed, ability and driving power,” the American continued, noting that it used the word “advisedly” because “Texas missed even more scoring opportunities than Northwestern.” Wildcats fullback Dud Kean chased down Texas back Jackie Field at the Northwestern 17, a crucial stop as the ‘Cats picked off Texas later than possession. When quarterback Otto Graham ripped off a 36-yard run to get the ‘Cats to the Longhorns’ 24, Pick came on to produce the only scoring of the day.
...what’s the point of this exercise? Tier
WELL I’M SO HAPPY YOU ASKED.
It won’t last beyond this Saturday, but we gotta celebrate Northwestern’s 2-0 record against the Maryland Terrapins while we can.