The 1995 Northwestern Wildcats Took the Nation by Surprise

If you are looking for possibly the worst college football teams from the 1970s or the 1980s you might pick Kansas State of the old Big 8 Conference. You could take either New Mexico or New Mexico State as your worst team. You might have picked Rice, or TCU of the old Southwest Conference.  Or, you might pick Northwestern from the Big 10.

Back in the old days, newspapers almost always ran the top 25 national Polls, but some of them also had a Bottom 10 and Northwestern was often one of the leaders. The Poll would be complete with the next team they played as the particular worst team’s next loss. It was meant to be comical, but I am sure Northwestern Alumni did not find it all that amusing.

From 1972 until 1994, Northwestern was about as bad as anyone in the nation. So bad were the Wildcats that during a 6 year period, their record was 3 wins and 52 losses with a single tie. That’s the worst record I think I’ve ever seen over a six year period.

They tried their share of coaches when Alex Agase left to take the Purdue job after going 2 – 9 in 1972. They hired John Pont who was the only coach to take the Indiana Hoosiers to the Rose Bowl. Pont failed and Rick Venturi came in and compiled an incredibly awful 1 – 31 – 1 record. Venturi was fired and Dennis Green was hired. Green was the first black head coach in the Big 10 and would later coach the Minnesota Vikings, but he also failed miserably at Northwestern with his best season a very unremarkable 3 – 8.

Francis Peay replaced Green and he failed horribly and 3 – 8 was the best he could do as well.

Gary Barnett took over as head coach at Northwestern in 1992. He was an assistant at Colorado under head coach Bill McCartney when they won a national championship in 1990. Northwestern was desperately looking for a miracle and Barnett’s first team stumbled to a 3-8 record during his first season as boss in 1992. After that, they struggled to a 2-9 record, and then 3-7-1. I would suppose that the powers that be at Northwestern were contemplating what they were going to do next because this new hire didn’t seem to be working out.

The 1994 college football season ended and it appeared as if things would never change for

Northwestern in football. A 3-7-1 record in his third season at the helm did not look good for Gary Barnett.

But, 1995 got off to an almost magical beginning for the Wildcats of Northwestern. They shot out of the blocks by surprising the Golden Domers of Notre Dame with a 17-15 upset victory. Notre Dame had a disappointing season in 1994 with true freshman Ron Powlus getting the start at Quarterback. ESPN blowhard Beano Cook announced to the world that Powlus would win 4 Heisman Trophies, so no matter what Powlus had done under center at Notre Dame he would have been a disappointment.    These were the years that Lou Holtz was coaching Notre Dame and they did bounce back in 1995, so beating the Fighting Irish really was a big deal. To top that off, the Northwestern Wildcats had even gone into South Bend, Indiana and beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on their own hallowed field.

The nation went wild and Northwestern was the media rage of the week. The Northwestern Wildcats football team entered the top 25 Poll for the first time probably in my lifetime coming in at #25 this week.

But, that was short lived as the Wildcats apparently were the same old Northwestern football team as the following game they lost to Miami of Ohio, 28 – 30. It was a crushing blow for the Wildcats. It didn’t matter in the slightest that the Miami of Ohio Redhawks had a good team in 1995. They were in the Mid-American Conference and not the Big 10 or any other power conference as we call them today.

The 1 – 1 Wildcats were back out of the Polls.

In spite of the tremendous letdown, they quickly bounced back and whipped Air Force and the Falcons’ unconventional offense, 30-6. The Air Force Falcons ran a Wishbone type offense that often gave defenses fits. Falcon Quarterback Beau Morgan was a master at running the option and the 6 points against Northwestern was their lowest output of the season.

That was the Wildcats’ last non conference game and as they got into Big 10 play, they went on a roll.

They beat Indiana soundly, 31 – 7, and they were back in the Polls with a 3 – 1 record ranked back at the 25th spot.

Then, the ranked Wildcats went into the Big House and beat the mighty Michigan Wolverines, 19-13. Michigan was ranked in the top 10 coming into that game and this was an old school Michigan team. Brian Griese was their Quarterback and they had excellent Running Back Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Even if you can’t say his name fast 3 times in a row, he was still an outstanding Running Back and he ran for 1,724 yards in 1995. Beating Michigan after already taking out Notre Dame put the nation on notice that this Northwestern Wildcat team just might be for real.

The Polls dropped them all the way down to the 14th position after they improved to 4 wins and 1 loss on the season.

Again, like after Notre Dame, people were starting to notice this Northwestern football team.

Northwestern beat Minnesota, 27 – 17, and then steamrolled 24th ranked Wisconsin, 35 – 0. That was an impressive win for their program, even if Wisconsin was slightly down in 1995.

Following that impressive win over the Badgers, the Wildcats beat Illinois in a squeaker, 17-14. They were now 7 – 1 on the year and ranked in the top 10.

This was all new territory for college football fans. Northwestern in the top 10 is something none of us had ever witnessed before. This was new and different and it was exciting.

A big test came for the highly ranked Wildcats next when legendary Joe Paterno and his 12th ranked Penn State Nittany Lions came into Evanston to challenge for Big 10 supremacy.  The Wildcats passed with flying colors beating the Lions by a  21 – 10 score. They continued their drop in the Polls hitting number 5 in the latest.

Luckily for the Wildcats, the Buckeyes were not on their schedule in 1995, and Northwestern would need a little help to win the Big 10 outright. Going into the end of the season, the powerful Buckeyes were still undefeated.

Northwestern continued along beating old nemesis Iowa, 31- 20. Then, they closed out their regular season with another win, this one over Purdue with a 23 – 8 win. The Northwestern Wildcats finished their 1995 regular season with a fantastic 10 – 1 record with impressive wins over Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State.

The Michigan Wolverines came through big for Northwestern with a somewhat stunning upset of the 2nd ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The Wolverines beat the unbeaten Buckeyes, 31 – 23.

That gave the Northwestern Wildcats the outright Big 10 Championship.

Northwestern had won the Big 10 title before, but the last one had been in 1936. Their last Rose Bowl was after the 1948 season, but Michigan had won the conference and that silly no repeat rule kept the Wolverines at home for the holidays even though they were national champions.

It had been a great number of years of futility for the Northwestern Wildcats. In 1994, the Wildcats had gone 3 – 7 – 1 and now they were 10 – 1. It was an amazing turnaround.

Winning a Big 10 Championship at Northwestern was a pretty big deal.

The Wildcats were led by Quarterback Steve Schnur and Running Back Darnell Autry on offense and Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald on defense.

Autry ran for a spectacular 1,785 yards and 17 Touchdowns while catching 27 passes for 168 yards and another Touchdown.

Probably nobody represented this Northwestern Wildcat team better than All American Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. He averaged over 13 tackles per game while winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy

and the Chuck Bednarik Award.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald broke his leg against Iowa and had to miss the Purdue game and the Rose Bowl.

As I so often do, I wonder what effect the loss of fiery leader and top tackler Pat Fitzgerald had on the Northwestern Wildcats’ performance against powerhouse USC in the Rose Bowl.


But, even though the Wildcats lost to the Trojans in the Rose Bowl, it’s extremely difficult to be disappointed about a 10 – 2 final record and a Big 10 Championship.

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