They rushed the field last Saturday evening at Northwestern,
undergraduates flowing from the bleachers under a full November moon and moving onto the plastic grass in the hollow of Dyche Stadium. It was an orderly rush, but a rush nonetheless, because they have learned how to celebrate the sweet high of an upset: You wobble the goalposts, you make silly faces while waving index fingers in the air for any soul with a minicam, and you act as if all this is very much a surprise, even though it has become ordinary.
And so the most enduring story of the fall continued, with cute
naivete still attached. In the moments after Northwestern
wrapped up a 21-10 victory over Penn State, completing a
spectacularly improbable hat trick that included wins at Notre
Dame in September and at Michigan in October, not only did
students cover the field in a human blanket, but also Cinderella
references accrued like 12% interest. Question to Northwestern
coach Gary Barnett: "Coach, how did it feel to coach against Joe
Paterno?" And so on.
But did you see the Northwestern players? Even as the giddiness
surrounded them, they treated their eighth win in nine games--a
victory that moved them to No. 5 in the country--as if it were a
10-minute oil change. Presented with a chance to punch in an
extra touchdown in the final 90 seconds, Northwestern instead
took a knee twice, having acquired class in two months.
(Nebraska, on the other hand, has been dominant for 30 years but can't resist hanging 70 on the likes of Iowa State.) At the
finish, the Wildcats ambled off the field as if this were the
annual loss to Iowa. When two female fans mauled Northwestern
wide receiver Brian Musso, he said, "Well, thank you," and moved
That Doormat Makes Good theme is dead now. If you had laid down a parlay bet in August on Northwestern beating the Big Three on its schedule, you could now buy Delaware, but by the time the Wildcats beat Penn State, a five-point favorite, the word upset no longer should have applied. "People keep waiting for us to just break some weekend and lose 50-0," said sophomore running back Darnell Autry. "That's not going to happen."
What has happened in Evanston is more than magic and charm and serendipity, though it is partly each of those things. The
Wildcats have improved every week, climbing higher in the
nation's rankings and expunging their own wonderment in the
process. When they beat Notre Dame on Labor Day weekend in South Bend, the Wildcats celebrated madly. They have grown calmer with each successive victory. "Actually, we're just on an emotional plateau right now," said junior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.
"This team believed in itself even before Notre Dame," said
Barnett. "That win just verified it." True, said fifth-year
senior center Rob Johnson. "Notre Dame was an incredible high,
because nobody gave us a chance," said Johnson. "That game
proved something to us; it was an awakening. But since then
we've tried to keep a level head. Every Saturday we're just
playing a different face and a different jersey. We're very
businesslike about it."
If that concept is baffling, consider that there are concrete
reasons for Northwestern's success: sound defense; depth and
execution on the offensive line; a gritty quarterback with
experience; and Fitzgerald and Autry, two starters who are
playing as well as anybody in the country at their positions. No
less an authority than Paterno, who was visibly peeved after
Saturday's loss, said, "We're a good football team. Northwestern
is an outstanding football team. They're my kind of football
team." Translation: tough, sound, lacking stars.
Well, almost lacking stars. Last Saturday, Fitzgerald
demonstrated that he is clearly one of the best linebackers in
the country and that his absence from the list of 10
semifinalists for the Butkus Award is deplorable (memo to
voters: Think write-in). Fitzgerald had 20 tackles and a sack of
Penn State quarterback Wally Richardson. This season he has 123
tackles, with no fewer than 10 in any game. Fitzgerald was part
of Barnett's first recruiting class, typical of the high-quality
athletes now arriving in Evanston. "It's the whole difference,"
said Fitzgerald. "All of us bought into Coach Barnett's message, and it shows on the field."
Autry--who scored all three Northwestern touchdowns last
Saturday and, more significantly, carried the ball 36 times for
139 yards on a cold, windy day when passing was problematic--was a member of Barnett's second recruiting class. He is perhaps the best athlete in the program, the type of explosive, durable
back that one would expect to find at, well, Nebraska. It was
Autry who sealed this win with a 23-yard carry to the Penn
State one and a touchdown run on the next play, giving the
Wildcats their 21-10 lead with 11:03 to play.
When asked what it was like to block for Autry, Johnson said,
"Easy." It was not easy getting Autry to come to Evanston,
because he was the sort of elite recruit who wouldn't have
returned phone calls from the Northwestern programs of the
1980s. "It was a coup to get him," said running backs coach John
Wristen, who recruited Autry out of Tempe (Ariz.) High in 1994,
beating out Colorado in the process. Autry has rushed for a
school-record 1,339 yards, majors in theater and soaks up the
applause as much as his elders. "I'm enjoying this as much as
any of the juniors and seniors," he said.
Five of those juniors and seniors start on the offensive line,
which not only blocks well for Autry but has also allowed just
five sacks of quarterback Steve Schnur (none by Penn State).
Although the line is very solid, it continues to be stung by
weekly pronouncements that it is less talented than its
opposition, that it survives merely on grit and pluck. Cornerbacks Rodney Ray and Chris Martin are also seniors, and Northwestern routinely leaves them in single coverage on wideouts, which allows Fitzgerald to roam more freely. "We put them on an island all the time," said Barnett. On Saturday they held reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott to a combined eight catches for 85 yards, with no gain over 19 yards and no touchdowns.
"People like to say we're not talented," said Schnur. "It's
true, we do have a great work ethic and we do believe in each
other." Here he paused and smiled. "But it sure doesn't feel
like we're less talented out there." There's more talent on the
way. Northwestern hosted a large group of recruits for the Penn
State game, and as Barnett said afterward, "Having them at a
game like that can't hurt."
It is more than a little sad that all of this blossoming talent
and good fortune probably will not land Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats (8-1) and No. 2 Ohio State (9-0) are both unbeaten in the Big Ten and do not play each other this year. If they finish tied for the conference title, Ohio State goes to
Pasadena on the basis of a better overall record, a Big Ten rule
that has been in effect since 1974. Northwestern's best shot is
to win the rest of its games and hope Michigan beats Ohio State
on Nov. 25 at Ann Arbor. In the meantime, Fitzgerald says, the
Wildcats' mantra is, "Somewhere warm on January 1st. Somewhere warm on January 1st."
That somewhere will most likely be Orlando, where Northwestern would play a Southeastern Conference team, possibly Tennessee, in the Citrus Bowl. (Even so, the permutations of the bowl alliance and its domino sisters remain myriad.) "But I'm not worried about who we play in a bowl," said Schnur. "We've already played a lot of good teams, haven't we?"
At least three. Three that hadn't been beaten by the same team
in the same fall since Michigan State did it 30 years ago.
Last Saturday night, in the John C. Nicolet Football Center next
to Dyche Stadium, Northwestern coaches and players' parents
milled about in small groups, replaying what had happened that
day. Barnett leaned against a counter, wearing a jacket and tie,
talking to his wife, Mary. In his fourth year as the Wildcats'
coach, he now watches as his team grows beyond his teachings,
maturing on its own.
Earlier, Barnett had begun his postgame press conference by
feigning shock. "We must be pretty good," he had said, eliciting
the desired laughter. Now he shook his head in amazement. "It
was meant to be humorous," Barnett said. "But I am learning
about them as I go along. They beat Notre Dame, they beat
Michigan, and ever since then, they've faced a challenge that
none of them has ever faced before. Normally this type of thing
has to evolve with time, but we've just skipped first and second
grades and gone right on with it."
Barnett paused as defensive backs coach Jerry Brown walked past, leaving for the night. "Great game, Jerry," Barnett said,
commending the planning that contained Engram and Scott. "One hundred twenty-nine yards passing, that's it," said Brown. He was followed by George and Peggy Price of Nashville, whose son Marcel, a freshman last year, was accidentally shot and killed
in July. Northwestern players wear a patch on their jerseys in
tribute to Marcel, whose parents still occasionally come to
Northwestern games. "Nice going, Coach," said George Price,
pumping Barnett's right hand.
Many parents remained, lingering and talking and sharing the
pride they all felt. "This is a special group of guys," said Barnett. "There are things you don't have to teach them, things they know how to handle. And right now, they don't want to taste losing again."
Around him the room hummed softly in quiet celebration.
Restrained. Routine. Businesslike.