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.