NU's Greatest Games:
A Look at the Last Ten Years
and the Changing All-Time List

One of the first features posted back in 2000 was a very subjective list of the greatest 25 games ever played by Northwestern.  Since that time, five games played in the intervening seasons have cracked that top 25 list, and the list has gone through additional changes as the importance of certain games rose and waned (we'll discuss that in more detail below).

Here is's list of the ten best games of the last ten years.  As mentioned, the top five from this list overlap with the current version of the all-time top 25.  For the all-time greatest games list, click here.

1.  2000: NU 54, Michigan 51 (#3, all-time greatest games list)
I can't imagine what game would top any list of the greatest Northwestern football games of the last ten years, if it isn't this one.  The game was critical to the Wildcats' Y2K Big Ten title (if NU had lost this game, but instead beat Iowa in the game NU should have won, 2000 would have ended up as a nice winning season for NU, but not a title year-- Michigan would have been the sole Big Ten champ and would have gone to the Rose Bowl). 

As mentioned in the recent post about the biggest NU football stories of the decade, the 2000 Michigan game served notice to the nation that the spread offense wasn't just a gimmick; it was a lethal movement set to sweep across college football.  Eight years after this game, the Wolverines would themselves become a spread team.

On NU’s first possession, Damien Anderson tore up the middle for gains of 23 and 39 yards, and Kustok brushed aside the Michigan defenders to score.  The Wolverines got the ball, drove methodically and scored, and the pattern for the game was set.  Michigan scored another touchdown in the first quarter, and NU opened the second quarter with an Anderson touchdown.  Michigan launched a 10-yard touchdown pass on its next possession, held NU to a punt, then scored again.  The Wolverines’ lead grew to 28-10. 

Walker said before the Michigan game, “they’ll have to kill us to beat us.”  He was right.  Down 18, NU stormed right back.  With three and a half minutes left, down 51-46, Kustok began to drive again.  He unleashed a bomb to Kunle Patrick for 20 yards.  Kustok then kept the ball and ran for 21 yards.  On third down Kustok hit Teddy Johnson on a slant for 36 yards.  On first and goal Damien Anderson brought the ball to the Michigan 6.  The next two plays failed, and NU was down to its last play.  On fourth and goal from the 7, Kustok threw to Teddy Johnson for an apparent touchdown.  However, the officials called NU for an ineligible receiver downfield.  They backed NU up to the 12-yard line for its fourth down.  As the crowd hushed, Kustok found Anderson wide open in the end zone.  Anderson lost the ball in the Ryan Field lights, and it dropped to the grass.  With a minute and a half left, Michigan took over and needed one first down to burn enough time to win.  On second down Wolverine star Anthony Thomas ran up the middle and was stripped of the ball.   Raheem Covington recovered, and I thought the entire stadium would go completely insane.  Kustok, from the Michigan 30, completed passes to Anderson, Johnson, and then to Simmons for the score.   47,130 fans turned the stadium into a deafening circus.   Northwestern had rolled up 654 yards of offense, the most ever given up by a Michigan team.

There simply has not been a more exciting game ever played in Evanston, Illinois.  Ever.  I spent practically the entirety of the game in shock, standing in the west stands and wondering if what I was watching was real, or if someone had slipped peyote in my souvenir mug of hot chocolate.  The Wildcat players simply would not quit.  They were utterly relentless.  This is the most electrifying moment in NU football history, and it happened in our time.

2000 Michigan Highlights from NUWildcat's great YouTube series.

2.  2000: NU 47, Wisconsin 44 (double overtime) (#13, all-time list)
After three straight losing seasons, this was the game that really sounded the bell that NU football was back on track.  NU had opened the season by beating NIU and Duke, but then lost badly to TCU.  What happened next was stunning.  The 'Cats walked into Camp Randall and upended sixth-ranked Wisconsin. 
Wisconsin was a two-time defending Big Ten champion, looking to get to its third-straight Rose Bowl.   The Badgers were the highest-ranked opponents that NU had beaten on the road in decades (Wisconsin was ranked one spot higher than Michigan had been when NU beat them in Ann Arbor in 1995).

NU struck first, when Kustok kept the ball and ran 28 yards for a touchdown.  One would have thought that the Camp Randall announcer had just declared the reinstatement of prohibition: 78,597 hostile screaming voices went still.  What followed was one of the wildest back and forth battles NU fans had seen.  With 51 seconds in the game, Wisconsin booted what looked like the game winning field goal.

Zak Kustok remained calm as he guided the ‘Cats to two first downs and put them into field goal range with two seconds left.  Tim Long kicked a 46-yard field goal, his longest to date, and the game moved into overtime.  The teams swapped touchdowns, and NU found itself down a field goal in double overtime.  Damien Anderson streaked, virtually untouched, 13 yards into the end zone, and NU won its biggest game since 1996.

3.  2004: NU 33, Ohio State 27 (overtime) (#14, all-time list)
The ‘Cats were 1-3 and faced seventh-ranked Ohio State at Ryan Field.  2004 was the 33rd year of the Wildcats’ drought against Ohio State.  The series with the Buckeyes was in many ways the last vestige of Northwestern football’s Dark Age.  Northwestern hosted Ohio State at night, the ninth night game in the history of the stadium.  The game sold out—NU’s first sellout since the 2000 Michigan game.  The atmosphere was right for a game for the ages, and the Wildcats delivered.  In one of the most dynamic upsets in college football, NU beat the Buckeyes 33-27 in the very first overtime game played at Ryan Field.

Ohio State would even the score several times during the game, but the Buckeyes never led.  In overtime, NU’s exhausted defense took the field and delivered a heroic stop, taking the Buckeyes to fourth down and forcing them to bring in their excellent kicker, Mike Nugent.  In any other game Nugent would have responded and OSU would have taken its first lead of the game.  This, however, was Northwestern’s night at last.  Somehow, it would not have been right to have such an all-out performance end in yet another close Wildcat loss.  Nugent missed.  The Wildcat fans went ballistic.  The reality of what was about to happen settled in, and the crowd became jubilant.  Noah Herron plowed ahead for a yard.  Brett Basanez took the ball and shot 21 yards to the OSU 3-yard line.  Ryan Field became a screaming, surreal stage, eager for the inevitable.  On his 33rd carry of the game, Noah Herron, #33, ran into the end zone and scored NU’s 33rd point, ending 33 years of frustration.  Fans celebrated the 33-27 win like it was the national championship.

4.  2000: NU 41, Minnesota 35 (#21, all-time list)
Having lost to Purdue in its previous game, NU traveled to Minnesota and suffered a second-quarter breakdown.  The Gophers scored 21 in the second quarter and led 28-14 at the half.  In the third quarter Minnesota scored again, and NU found itself down 21 points.  Kustok and company then began a stupifying comeback.  He found Simmons for a 13-yard touchdown pass.  Early in the fourth quarter Kustok lunged into the end zone to bring the ‘Cats to within seven.  With just over a minute left Kustok again ran in to score.  With the game tied, Minnesota had the ball, but they were deep in their own territory.  Rather than run the ball, grind out the clock, and go into overtime, the Gophers tried to pass, failed, and had to punt. 

NU got the ball in its own territory and then ran two short ground plays, appearing to be content with heading to overtime.  This left the 'Cats with third down, eight seconds left, a running clock, and no time outs.  However, overtime was not the goal.  Kustok spiked the ball.  With three seconds left, and Tim Long facing a 63 yard field goal, the Wildcats instead lined up for a last play, "Victory Right."  Kustok took the snap and, before being decked to the turf, heaved a shocking bomb to the end zone.  In the Victory Right play, three of NU's receivers streak to the endzone, with two of them in position where the "catch" should be made.  However, there was to be no catch; instead, Kunle Patrick jumped over the defenders and tipped the ball, volleyball-style, to Sam Simmons, who was relatively unguarded.  Simmons made the catch, staggered to ensure that he had possession while in the endzone, and raced off the field, spiking the ball in triumph.

5.  2009: NU 17, Iowa 10 (#23, all-time list)
Just when you think that you, as a fan, have seen it all: Northwestern, on the ropes, riddled with injuries and watching a once-promising season trickle into mediocrity, staged its biggest, wildest win in at least five years by taking down undefeated, #4 Iowa in the house that Kinnick built but the Wildcats own.

The win was by far the most important of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach so far, it launched the Wildcats into position for their first January bowl game since 1997, and it shattered Iowa's 13-game winning streak.  The Hawkeyes, who came into the game with nine wins and no losses, had not been defeated at Kinnick Stadium since NU and C.J. Bachér beat them the previous year.  NU had never before beaten a #4 or better team in the opposing team's stadium.

On offense, Mike Kafka started the game with a sore hamstring, but was quickly replaced with Dan Persa.  When Persa injured his hand in the second half, Kafka was forced to return, and helped lead NU to the win.  In addition to one touchdown pass, Persa racked up an impressive 67 yards on the ground.  On defense, Corey Wootton pulled off the most significant play of the game by sacking Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, forcing a fumble recovered for a touchdown, and taking Stanzi out of the game.

6.  2001: NU 27, Michigan State 26 (not ranked, all-time list)
The game with Michigan State was full of spectacle; at least, the last minute was.  The Spartans took the lead late in the fourth quarter on a 64-yard punt return for touchdown.  They had been thwarted most of the day by NU’s spectacular linebacking corps, particularly Billy Silva and Kevin Bentley.  Kustok led the next charge, running for 24 yards.  The ‘Cats found themselves with a fourth down near the MSU 20-yard line and just over a minute left.  Kustok kept the ball for the first down and then unloaded to Kunle Patrick in the end zone with just 29 seconds left.  NU led 24-20, and it appeared to be a final score.  But the game was far from over.  Northwestern committed a personal foul after kicking the extra point and had to kick off at its own 20.  The Spartans returned the kick 84 yards, reached the end zone, and went insane.  Michigan State players raced from the sideline onto the field.  The officials called MSU for unsportsmanlike conduct and set the Spartans’ troubled kicking crew back 15 feet.  The kick was not good, and Michigan State led only 26-24.

Zak Kustok said after the game, “I go into every game thinking it’s going to come down to me having to win the game and having the confidence in myself to do that.”  What Kustok did was unleash Victory Right once again.  Fifty-six yards down the field Kunle Patrick tipped the ball, and Jon Schweighardt made a spectacular catch.  With three seconds left, Wildcat kicker David Wasielewski kicked the 47-yard field goal to stun the Spartans 27-26 as time expired.

7.  2009: NU 33, Wisconsin 31 (not ranked, all-time list)
The Wildcats edged 17th-ranked Wisconsin in a regular season-ending thriller at Ryan Field that would eventually tip NU into the Outback Bowl.  The 'Cats began the game with a drive that resulted in a Kafka to Brewer touchdown, and soon led 10-0.  Wisconsin would fight back, and the stage was set for a fantastic see-saw battle the rest of the evening.  With less than a minute to go, and with NU holding onto a two-point lead, Demos punted out of bounds to prevent a Wisconsin return.  The Badgers' last hope at upending NU was snuffed when Jordan Mabin made the pick of the year.

8.  2005: NU 51, Wisconsin 48 (not ranked, all-time list)
This was a tough call for the top-ten list, because it beat out the 2005 Iowa game, which was also deserving of mention.  But the offensive spectacle involved in NU's victory over the 14th-ranked Badgers was just too compelling.

NU roared back from a ten-point deficit against undefeated Wisconsin to beat the Badgers in a weird, wild shoot-out.  NU fans watched as the Wildcat offense broke or extended several school records and proved that it was one of the top units in the country. 

Quarterback Brett Basanez; freshman running back Tyrell Sutton; receivers Jonathan Fields, Mark Philmore, and Shaun Herbert; and the rest of the NU offense combined for 674 yards, a new Wildcat record.  Sutton ground up 244 yards of turf, a top-ten all-time performance by an NU running back and the best ever by a freshman, and giving him the freshman running back season record-- in game five!  Sutton averaged 8.4 yards per carry.

9.  2008: NU 27, Illinois 10 (not ranked, all-time list)
Another really tough call, since this game edged out two other deserving games from 2008: the crazy win over Minnesota, and NU's solid performance at Kinnick Stadium.  So why choose the win over Illinois over the win vs. Iowa?  Even though Illinois was the lesser opponent, NU's performance at Ryan Field that evening against the Illini was just too good to ignore.  The Wildcats could have beaten practically any team that day; they happened to be pitted against a squad that wasn't up for the challenge.  Every player on the field had an "A" game, and I'm hard pressed to think of a better overall performance by NU in the last four years.  Add to this the fact that the win over Illinois gave NU its ninth win for the year and final ever bragging rights for Sweet Sioux, and the game rests in the top ten.

10.  2010 Outback Bowl: Auburn 38, NU 35 (not ranked, all-time list)
The Wildcats added to their legacy of wild, "Cardiac 'Cat" thrillers in the very first college football game of the new decade.  Unfortunately, they also added to their legacy of bowl game heartbreak, losing in overtime a strange, jaw-dropping comeback effort that featured fantastic performances by many of NU's players.  Northwestern, down 14 points twice to favored Auburn-- and several times facing an apparently imminent three-touchdown deficit-- tore back into this game with a blistering third quarter performance.  But a wild and bizarre string of plays in overtime ultimately sealed a win for Auburn and left NU again with a bowl loss.

Honorable Mention.  2009: NU 29, Indiana 28 (not ranked, all-time list)
Last year's game against Indy?  Why should that rate honorable mention?  Well, it now holds the distinction of the biggest comeback win in NU history.  Indiana had pulled to a 25-point lead before the 'Cats woke up.  Just seconds before halftime NU began its comeback with a Kafka to Markshausen TD, and NU rolled from there.

The five games above that made it onto the all-time top 25 list obviously displaced several older games that had been on the list.  However, those aren't the only changes we have made to the greatest games list during the past ten years.  The greatest games rankings look quite different now from how they did in 2000.  Take another look at the current top 25 rankings of NU games.  Below, I've reproduced the original list from 2000, showing how that list has changed as of 2010 and which games have fallen off the list as historical perception (at least, my perception of NU history) has shifted.

Changes to the 2000 Version of
NU's Greatest Games

Game Comment: The 2000 View Vs. The 2010 View
1 1 1995: NU 17, N.D. 15
No change here: the win over Notre Dame is still seen as the defining moment of the program.
2 2 1949 Rose Bowl:
NU 20, Cal 14
Also no change to the perception of NU's titanic win in Pasadena.
3 6 1996: NU 17, Mich. 16
Ten years ago, the excitement from this title-clenching game was still fresh, as was the experience of witnessing this circus at Dyche Stadium.  Both in terms of team effort and historical significance, this game now ranks below the monumental win over Michigan in '95.
4 --- 1996 Rose Bowl:
USC 41, NU 32
This is now on the "Moral Victory" list (along with the key 1924 games), but it is no longer on the top 25.
5 7 1962: NU 35, N.D. 6
No real change to the view of this game, which gave NU a #1 ranking.
6 17 1943: NU 41, Wisc. 0
The original ranking of this game was based on Otto Graham's performance.  I'm still in awe of Graham, but this game did little for the program.
7 9 1995: NU 21, PSU 10
What can you say about the win over Penn State?  Great then, great now.
8 --- 1924: Chicago 3, NU 0
Now on the three-game "Moral Victory" list.
9 5 1936: NU 6, Minn. 0
I continue to be increasingly impressed with this upending of Minnesota's dynasty.
10 8 1925: NU 3, Mich. 2
This set up NU's decade of strength and denied Michigan the national title.  It still belongs in the all-time top ten.
11 --- 1992: NU 27, Illinois 26
Before the 2000 season, this was still the biggest comeback in NU history.  The perceived significance of this game has decreased.
12 --- 1924: N.D. 13, NU 6
Now on the three-game "Moral Victory" list.
13 --- 1997 Citrus Bowl:
Tenn. 48, NU 28
This needs to be explained fully.  Remember that in 2000, NU had only ever been to three bowls, all of which made this initial list.  In 2000 I had ranked this #13 based on Autry's great performance, playing with flu.  Autry's performance still stands out, but the game is no longer on the list, nor should it be.
14 4 1995: NU 19, Mich. 13
A huge mistake, the biggest misjudgment on the 2000 list.  For a list put together just five years after this masterpiece of a game was played, the game was criminally underranked.  It has continued to slide upwards ever since.
15 16 1982: NU 31, NIU 6
I still agree with my assessment in 2000: this game was a landmark, and important step away from further disaster.
16 15 1935: NU 14, N.D. 7
This game was of national importance, and that view hasn't changed.
17 12 1959: NU 45,
Oklahoma 13
I've come to appreciate better just how big a deal this win was and how much it set up NU for the next few years.
18 19 1991: NU 17, Illinois 11
No real change in my perception on this one.  A critical Dark Ages win.
19 11 1930: NU 27, Minn. 6
Another game that, the more I studied it, the more important it seemed.
20 18 1892: NU 10, Mich. 8
This was a hell of an accomplishment, given the state of the program in 1892 vs. Michigan.
21 22 1967: NU 12, Miami 7
No change to the view of this one.  Beating the #1 team was big.
22 --- 1971: NU 14, OSU 10
I still consider this a fantastic win for NU, but it eventually got squeezed out of the top 25 by some of the more recent big wins.
23 20 1926: NU 38, Chicago 7
This game has risen in stature on the list as I've reconsidered what it meant to the program.
24 --- 1995: NU 35, Wisc. 0
This is still an important game, and a dominant performance by NU, but Wisconsin in '95  was still a year away from being a good team.  In 2010, this game just misses the top 25 cut.
25 10 1896: NU 46, Chicago 6
#25 to #10??  This jump is due to reconsidering just how good Chicago was.  In 1896 Chicago had previously outscored its opponents 325-0 and was in line to be the best in the nation.  This win was huge for NU and its program, which spent the next decade dominating.