Hell Part III
I knew in my heart we would soon destroy the myth that Northwestern could never win. All the national experts believed brains and brawn were mutually exclusive. Why did that have to be? A keen intellect could help you outsmart your opponent, and enough hours in the weight room could make you strong enough to compete. As I thumbed through the national preseason football magazines, I was once again disappointed in what I read.
“Northwestern hasn’t had a winning season in nearly 25 years, and that streak is in no jeopardy this season, but give this school a lot of credit for maintaining it’s academic integrity while competing in a powerhouse conference like the Big Ten…with another brutal schedule on the horizon, the Wildcats will be very fortunate to improve upon last fall’s modest win-loss record.”
-Game Plan’s College Football
“Bowl and blow – as in blowout – have the same letters, but there’s a world of difference. Just when Northwestern fans had the audacity to let thoughts of a possible bowl game invade their senses thanks to a 3-3-1 record in late October, the Wildcats came to their senses and were blown away in the last four games…”
-Athlon Football, 1995, which ranked us 79th out of 108 teams
“Ominous sign: Wildcats’ best player is punter Paul Burton”
-Sports Illustrated, which also ranked us 79th
Their doubt just added fuel to the fire.
During our first defensive team meeting, Coach Vanderlinden detailed our goals for the season. He wanted us to focus on creating turnovers. On every play, he expected us to try to knock the ball out of the ball carrier’s hands. If the ball was in the air, he expected us to come down with it. If the ball was on the ground, he expected us to jump on it. He expected every defender to sprint to the ball every single play and swarm the ball carrier. If the ball came loose, he expected all eleven of us to be there to pick it up.
Looking around the room, I saw so much potential. During the spring, Pat Fitzgerald had established himself as the leader of the defense. Pat wasn’t the strongest or fastest player on our team, but he loved the game and it showed in the effort he gave every single play. As our starting middle linebacker, he had a nose for the ball. He feared no one. When the ball carrier burst through the middle, he attacked the hole with reckless abandon and blasted the running back as hard as he could. His confidence and determination rubbed off on all of us.
Senior Danny Sutter, a two-year starter, manned the other linebacker spot. His brother Ed was the second all-time leading tackler at Northwestern and played for the Cleveland Browns, so Danny came from good stock. Danny never took a play off and always went full speed until the whistle blew. We knew both those guys would do a great job keeping the running back from breaking through for big gains.
Tim Scharf was slated to start at outside linebacker and Casey Dailey would start at defensive end. They’d both gained a lot of strength in the off-season and had a knack for making plays. Geoff Shein played the other defensive end position. The senior’s motor never quit. Off the field, he was the nicest guy, but on the field, he wanted to rip your head off. Geoff didn’t have the size or speed to play in the NFL, but there wasn’t another end in college football that could match his desire and determination. He laid it on the line each and every snap.
We filled out our defensive line with a bunch of aggressive, hard-nosed, humble guys willing to do the dirty work so the linebackers could make the tackles. No one defined that better than Matt Rice. In two years, Matt had gained more than 30 pounds of muscle to survive the beatings from the offensive linemen in the trenches. They’d pushed him around his first two years, but now he had the strength to push back.
Joe Reiff was another underappreciated guy who silently went about his business every day and did what the coaches asked him to do. He filled the gap and wasn’t afraid of anything. Joe, Matt and our other linemen – Ray Roby, KeJuan DeBose and Mike Giometti – all came into the season stronger than ever, ready to take on the 300-pound behemoths guarding the quarterbacks of the Big Ten Conference.
Our strongest position was once again at defensive back. With Chris Martin, Rodney Ray, and William Bennett returning, it’d be hard for any quarterback to find an open passing lane. When you added hard-hitting, Eric Collier at strong safety and lightning quick Hudhaifa Ismaeli at the nickel back, we knew getting turnovers would not be a problem. Our defense was the best-kept secret in college football, and very soon we’d share that secret with the rest of the nation.
We broke off into position groups. As I sat in the defensive backs room, I sized up the rookies. I was no longer the only white defensive back on the team. Kyle Sanders and Scott Musso, Brian’s younger brother, made it three. The other two newbies, Gerald Conoway and Brian Rubin, were from Detroit and played cornerback. With all our depth, both expected to redshirt. Because Marcel’s death left such a big hole at strong safety, the coaches moved Larry Guess from wide receiver to the defensive side of the ball. He and I would now share reps with the second team.
Learning a new position helped me avoid the doldrums of training camp. I zeroed in on my new responsibilities and transferred what I learned in the classroom to the football field. At strong safety, I lined up over the tight end – for the most part. If a run came to my side, I attacked the outside shoulder of the blocker to force the runner inside toward the free safety. I couldn’t let the runner get around me because if he did, he’d pick up a bunch of yards and I’d get cussed out on the sideline. I began making plays right away. Since I’d played strong safety in high school, the adjustment was not hard for me. I also watched Eric Collier closely to see how he played the position. I studied practice film to avoid making the same mistake twice. My main weakness was blitzing the quarterback. On the strong safety blitz, I had to sprint past the offensive linemen and hit the quarterback. I wasn’t very quick and struggled to get past the big uglies. I didn’t have the burst of speed God gave Hudhaifa and Eric. Both of them flew through the line recklessly and more times than not sacked the quarterback. I tried my best but usually got to the quarterback too late.
After a week of practice in Evanston, we boarded the buses for Kenosha. By then I had another nice goatee growing in on my upper lip and chin. I felt the facial hair improved both my focus and performance. It seemed silly to believe such a thing but I was superstitious and like most superstitions, it didn’t make any sense. Would a goatee give me more speed and strength? Probably not. But still, I believed it might and that was enough. Plus I liked how it felt. I found myself stroking the bristles during meetings. I also thought my grizzled look commanded respect. I needed the coaches to believe in me. This was a make or break season for me, and I needed any advantage I could get.
Coach Barnett decided to get rid of two-a-day practices and instead had us practice three times a day. We hit the field at 8:30am, spent an hour and a half on individual drills, rested for 45-minutes, came back for another hour and a half of team drills, ate lunch, napped, held meetings, practiced for two hours in the late afternoon, went to dinner, had more meetings and then lights out. Coach Barnett believed shorter, more intense practices would help us get better quicker.
As I trudged along, battling the annual soreness and exhaustion of camp, I was glad my hip stayed strong. I continued to do special stretches with a long rubber band before and after practice to keep it loose. My good health helped me to play football better than I ever had in the past. I continued to compete against Larry for second-string strong safety. He was faster than me but I had experience he didn’t have. It made for an interesting battle, one that would go the entire season.
A couple days into Kenosha, Coach Barnett approached me after practice.
Matt, I need your help, he said. There’s a freshman walk-on named Zach Sidwell. He’s a defensive end from central Nebraska. He’s homesick and wants to quit. Could you do me a favor? Could you talk to him and try to convince him to stick it out?
Of course, Coach. Whatever you need me to do.
I found Zach in the locker room and introduced myself. He was tall and buff, 6’3”, 235 pounds, with short blonde hair and clear blue eyes. I saw potential in his large frame. He looked sad and forlorn, but a big smile crossed his face when I told him I, too, was from Nebraska.
Coach Barnett tells me you’re pretty homesick, I said.
Zach bowed his head. Yeah, man, I’m not having any fun. I don’t think I’m cut out for college football. I left a girlfriend behind and I miss her a lot. I’m thinking about heading back home.
Look, Zach. I can’t lie. Kenosha sucks. We all know it. No one likes coming here, but it’s a necessary evil. My freshman year? I cried every single night! I hated it. But I promise, if you stick it out, you’ll be better for it. Football has helped me become the man I am today. It builds character. I promise you, it might suck now but the homesickness will go away. I know you miss your girl, but you’d be leaving her next month anyways to come to school. Plus you don’t want to disappoint your parents, do you? I know you feel stuck and you’re miserable, but dude, seriously, stick it out. You’ll regret it the rest of your life if you don’t. Things will get better, I promise. Besides, we’re going to the Rose Bowl this year. Do you really want to miss that because of a girl?
But half the coaches don’t even know my name!
Hey, I walked-on, too, and it took them months to remember my name. But I worked my ass off and now I’m on a full ride. I wasn’t recruited. I wasn’t All State Nebraska or anything like that. If I did it, you can too. There’s a real opportunity for you here. There aren’t a lot of walk-ons and if you stick it out, I promise you, you’ll eventually get a chance to play and maybe even get a scholarship.
Zach decided to stay. I made it a point to talk to him every day during camp to help him adjust. I felt privileged to help Coach Barnett. Coach made me feel like an important part of the team, something I’d never really felt before. I didn’t have the authority to lead vocally – I was still only a second-string safety who rarely played – but I could lead by example. I worked hard every single day. I ran sprints and tackle drills at full speed. I stayed intense every second of every practice and never goofed off. I took my job seriously and hoped my intensity would rub off on my teammates. I strived to be perfect in every drill, every hit, every play. I wanted to be the best. I knew the only way to do that would be to outwork everyone else.
I made some good plays during our scrimmages and the coaches rewarded my efforts by listing me second on the depth chart. Well, 2A. They listed Larry Guess at 2B. I also remained a starter on the punt return team, but I was bummed to find out I was no longer on the kickoff return team. I wanted to know why but didn’t ask. I just sucked it up as I always did and dealt with the disappointment.
Every single night after dinner in Kenosha, we met as a team. Coach Barnett kept the scale at the front of the room with the 19 pennies representing Notre Dame’s practices on one side. If we had a good practice, Coach Barnett would put a penny on our side. Then we sang “High Hopes” as a team.
We’ve got, high hopes! We’ve got, high hopes! We’ve got, high apple pie in the sky hopes! we sang in unison.
One night, though, Coach Barnett refused to put a penny on our side of the scale. We hadn’t practiced particularly well and he didn’t want to reward us for an average effort. We could not afford to lose a penny to Notre Dame, not when we assumed they would be having 19 great practices leading up to our game. How could we get that penny back? The seniors came up with a plan. We were supposed to have the next day off, but they told Coach Barnett we wanted to practice. No one wanted to give up our day off but we also didn’t want to lose a penny. We woke up early, dressed in our sweat-soaked gear and attacked practice with relentless abandon. We had one of our best practices ever! We didn’t want to give Coach Barnett any excuse to withhold another penny. That night when we met again, he complimented our efforts in practice and put a penny on our side of the scale.
We broke camp in great shape, optimistic about our abilities. We were really coming together, and I felt good about our team chemistry. Our talent was really beginning to shine. Our quarterback situation had cleared up. Lloyd Abramson had grown tired of football – burnt out after years of playing – and he decided to quit the team. Tim Hughes was struggling. The coaches decided to go all in with Steve Schnur. He would be our starting quarterback. Guys like Darnell Autry, D’Wayne Bates and Brian Musso made great plays in practice every single day. Our offensive line began to gel. Our defense had become great ball hawks, forcing several turnovers every scrimmage. I noticed the bad attitudes of the past were gone. We all got along and genuinely liked each other. Our positive approach and desire to lay it all on the line for each other bolstered our faith in our team and ourselves.
Belief without evidence.
Our time in Kenosha mercifully came to an end and as we bussed back down to Evanston, I thought about playing Notre Dame in South Bend. They’d never know what hit them.
The Upset Heard Across the Country
My parents drove to South Bend, Indiana, to watch us play Notre Dame. They wanted to witness a game at the most storied football program in the nation. Notre Dame had more wins and more All-Americans than any other school. Some of the greatest players of all time created college football history here. There wasn’t another football program in the country with a richer history.
I was excited to play in South Bend. Now that I backed up Eric Collier, I would no longer room with William Bennett on the road. Eric and I would share a room, and we got along great. I was his biggest supporter and truly hoped he wouldn’t get hurt. He was too good to keep off the field – and he knew it. Eric carried a quiet confidence about him. The secondary didn’t experience any drop off from Kory Singleton’s graduation with Eric taking his place. In fact, I’d argue that Eric was a better playmaker. He had a nose for the ball and never backed down. He would “lay the wood” whenever a ball carrier ran toward him – and then he would reach out his hand and help the guy up. And when he did make a rare mistake? I’d see a smile cross his face, one of those ‘I’ll-get-you-next-time’ looks. I just hoped we’d blow out a few opponents this year so I could get some playing time. And if Eric did get hurt, I’d be ready to go.
The Thursday before the game during team drills, Coach Barnett pumped a soundtrack of crowd noise into the stadium. He wanted us to get used to how loud it would be in the stands Saturday. The cheers hurt my ears. We adjusted quickly to the high decibel level and looked sharp on the field. After practice, Coach Barnett played the song High Hopes through the sound system and we sang it loud and proud.
The next day, we wore suits as we bussed to South Bend. When we arrived, we went to the College Football Hall of Fame. It had just opened, and we were the first team to visit. The coaches jumped at the chance to have us learn more about the game’s history. We spent a couple hours in the museum walking through the brand new, state-of-the-art facility, soaking up the pictures, stories, and artifacts of games past. We hoped to make history of our own the next day against the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish.
After the tour we went to Notre Dame Stadium for our walk-thru. We changed into sweats and walked onto the hallowed field. I honestly was not that impressed. It wasn’t as big as it felt on television. It also showed its age. The concrete stairs and plain bleachers didn’t impress me. The mural of Touchdown Jesus on a building overlooking the field didn’t look as big as I had pictured it. I arrived with high expectations for the stadium and left disappointed.
Before practice, Coach Barnett gathered us together.
Look around, men, he said. Do you see any ghosts?
We looked around with smiles on our face.
I didn’t think so. This stadium is just like any other. It’s 100-yards long. The end zone is the same size as our end zone back home. The football is the same size as the footballs we’ve practiced with. You know, the media likes to play up the history here and how Notre Dame is God’s gift to football. I’ll tell you what. That team over there – he pointed to Notre Dame’s locker room – is no better than us. They may have history on their side, but we have something they don’t. The element of surprise. They don’t think we’re very good, but we’re better than they think and tomorrow afternoon we’re going to beat them right here on this field to prove it to them!
We were fired up! We believed Coach Barnett and knew in our hearts we would win. No one else did. The odds makers made us 27-point underdogs. No one expected us to even compete! The last time Northwestern beat Notre Dame? 1962.
The next morning before leaving for the stadium, Coach Barnett gave his inspirational pre-game speech. He stood behind a table with the scale and stacks of pennies.
Men, he began, at the beginning of camp I told you we would have 19 days of practice to prepare for today’s game against Notre Dame. I’m proud of you. Each and every one of you attacked practice like we asked. You got better, and we’ve become a good team.
Coach Barnett put 19 pennies on the scale and it tipped to one side.
I assume Notre Dame made the most of their 19 practices too.
He stacked 19 pennies on the other side of the scale and it balanced out.
It’s even, men. As you can see, we had 19 practices and Notre Dame had 19 practices. But…
Coach Barnett held up a shiny penny in his hand.
Remember when we practiced that Sunday in Kenosha? Notre Dame took the day off, but we got in an extra practice.
He put the penny on the scale and it tipped to our side. An energy flew through the room. Confidence surged in our hearts. Coach Barnett looked up at us and said, Men, after we beat Notre Dame today, I do not want you to carry me off the field. We expect to win this game!
His speech made believers out of all of us.
In the locker room before kickoff, I felt an intensity unlike any I’d ever felt before. No one joked around. No one looked nervous. We all sat by our lockers, dressed in our white uniforms and purple pants, ready to take the field. We were locked in and focused. Five minutes before kickoff, Geoff Shein stood up and gave an impassioned speech. He urged each of us to play every play as if it were our last, to show the doubters we were for real. He worked hard to get us focused, but we already knew what we needed to do.
It was the 119th straight sellout for Notre Dame. Head coach Lou Holtz was going for his 200th win. Their band played the Notre Dame fight song as they ran onto the field wearing navy and gold uniforms, gold pants and gold helmets. The crowd roared. They expected to win, and why not? We hadn’t won a season opener since 1975. We’d finished the previous season 3-7-1. They’d demolished us at Soldier Field the year before. They didn’t think we stood a chance.
We came out fighting. Early in the first quarter, Danny Sutter recovered a fumble at the 50-yard line. Darnell Autry then gashed their defense and helped us get the ball to the six-yard line. On third down, Steve Schnur connected with David Beazley on a corner route. David stretched out and caught the ball right before crashing into the drum section of the Notre Dame band. We’d struck first and took the early 7-0 lead.
Our defense flew all over the field making play after play. We blitzed and sacked quarterback Ron Powlus. We intercepted passes and recovered fumbles. We frustrated them. They kicked a field goal in the second quarter to trim our lead to four points, but we answered with a nice drive of our own. On third and 7, Schnur connected with Brian Musso for 18-yards and the first down. A few plays later, Sam Valenzisi hit a field goal to regain the seven-point lead.
Notre Dame answered. In the second quarter they scored a touchdown on a three-yard run, but their freshman kicker shanked the extra point. His miss allowed us to keep a slim 10-9 lead.
Right before halftime, we forced Notre Dame to punt. With six seconds left, I ran onto the field. Coach Vanderlinden called a punt block, so I moved out to shadow the gunner as he ran down the field. On the snap, the gunner slipped inside me. I chased. As Musso caught the ball, I shoved my man in the back to prevent him from making the tackle. I threw my hands in the air to show the ref I hadn’t clipped him, but he didn’t buy it. The ref threw his flag. Not that it mattered. Musso only had a short return and Notre Dame declined the penalty.
We came out in the second half determined to put the game away. In years past, we would wilt in the second half and let the other team have their way with us. Coach Barnett didn’t want that to happen to us again this year, so he prepared us to play two halves. Two week before the game, he’d blown his whistle halfway through practice and had us go into the locker room for thirty minutes. We then came back out to the field and started practice all over again. The first time we did this, we came out sluggish. But after berating us and making us start all over again, we learned to come out with fire in our bellies. His ploy trained us to play for 40 minutes, and we felt prepared to dominate for four quarters.
In the third quarter, D’Wayne Bates flashed the talent that would make him one of the Big Ten’s most prolific receivers. D’Wayne had come to Northwestern from South Carolina as a quarterback, but since we already had plenty of talented throwers on our roster, Coach Barnett moved him to wide receiver. At 6’2”, 210 lbs, D’Wayne had good speed and the size to jump over the smaller corners. Coach Barnett had him redshirt his freshmen year so he could learn how to play the position. Every day in practice he made impossible catches with his long arms and soft hands. In front of a sold out crowd, D’Wayne did what we saw him do every day in practice. He found a seam in the middle on a slant and caught Steve’s 27-yard dart. The cornerback grabbed his legs and D’Wayne fell right on the chalk on the goal line. Touchdown! We went up 17-9. The crowd stood silent, stunned.
In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame came back. They scored on a two-yard run to cut the lead to 17-15. They needed a two-point conversion to tie. On the snap, Ron Powlus stepped back to pass but tripped over his left guard’s leg. He quickly threw the ball in the air right as he fell to the ground. The refs ruled him down. No good! We still had the lead!
Some of us wondered if Marcel made that play for us.
Notre Dame would get one more shot. In the fourth quarter on fourth and two with four minutes left in the game, they decided to go for it. They ran a dive up the middle, but Danny Sutter and Matt Rice clogged the lane and threw running back Randy Kinder to the ground. Change of possession! We got the ball back!
Now we really felt the pressure. With less than four minutes left, we couldn’t make a mistake. We needed to control the clock. We ran the ball a couple times. The clock kept ticking down. On third and 8, Steve hit D’Wayne for the first down.
Now it was Darnell’s turn. He ripped off a couple long runs for first downs and the clock kept running. The seconds melted away. Less than 30 seconds now. Darnell ran it four yards. That was it! We watched the digital scoreboard clock countdown to zero.
We won 17-15!
We went crazy on the sideline. We’d beaten a Top Ten team on national television! We kept our poise and composure. We didn’t lift Coach Barnett on our shoulders. We simply hugged each other and ran back to the locker room full of joy. All of our hard work over the past two years had paid off! We went all in with Coach Barnett and he led us to the promised land! We trusted him and he held true to his word. We’d beaten Notre Dame, just like he said we would! We expected victory and we won!
We did it thanks to the efforts of both the offense and defense. Darnell ran for 160-yards. Steve passed for 166-yards and didn’t throw an interception. We only lost one fumble while Notre Dame lost two. Pat Fitzgerald had 15 tackles. Our defensive front sacked Powlus four times. It was a total team effort.
The next morning, the sports sections of every national newspaper highlighted our win over Notre Dame. “Upset Of The Century: Do You Believe In Miracles?” the Chicago Sun-Times headline read.
Reporters called our victory over Notre Dame one of the most surprising upsets of all time. That upset us. We’d expected to win. We knew we were going to win. Why couldn’t the pundits see this wasn’t a fluke? We really were a good team! But despite the good win, we knew we’d have to continue to fight the uphill battle against the losing history of Northwestern football. No one saw us as winners except us. Too bad the good feelings and positive vibes didn’t last long.