2009 Season
Review Page



If 2008 proved to be the watershed year for Coach Fitzgerald's Wildcats, the 2009 season continued the team's ride on that wave of success, to the surprise of many.  Having lost Tyrell Sutton and C.J. Bacher, and with Corey Wootton still recovering from the injury he sustained in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, there were some doubts heading into the season that NU could sustain its level of achievement from its fourth-place conference finish in '08. 

The Wildcats' offense, led by senior quarterback Mike Kafka, would eventually erase the doubts.  NU scored 337 points during its eight-win 2009 campaign, good enough for another fourth-place finish in the conference, tied with Wisconsin.  And NU's defense featured dominant performances by Sherrick McManis and others.

The season had a shaky start.  A win over FCS foe Towson was followed by a very close, ugly win against Eastern Michigan, then an unsettling loss to Syracuse.  By midseason, NU was 4-3 and faced Indiana for homecoming in a game that would bring the 'Cats one game away from being bowl eligible for the third straight year.  Surprisingly, NU found itself staring at a possible 4-4 record when the Hoosiers took a 25-point lead.  Instead, Northwestern tore back to win, notching the largest comeback in school history (and breaking the 21-point comeback record set against Minnesota in 2001 and also against Minnesota in 2007).

Indiana was not the only landmark win for NU in 2009.  On the heels of the Halloween loss at Ryan Field against Penn State, the 'Cats traveled to Iowa to battle the #4-ranked Hawkeyes.  Kafka had been injured during the Penn State game, and NU's defense was also riddled with injury.  NU, however, came away with one of the greatest wins in its history, and the team proceeded to beat Illinois to take the inaugural Land of Lincoln Trophy and win against a ranked Wisconsin team in a thriller.

The climax of this great season was perhaps the wildest game NU has ever played.  The 2010 Outback Bowl has been branded a classic by sports columnists across the country.  NU, in a fantastic effort, set an NCAA record for the number of offensive plays in a football game (115, breaking the record set by Montana, when it used 112 plays vs. Montana State in 1952) and also set a Division I record for offensive plays by an individual in a game (Kafka's 98 plays, surpassing the 94 plays by Matt Vogler of TCU, vs. Houston in 1990).

Much, of course, was made of kicker Stefan Demos's terrible day in the Outback Bowl.  However, NU would have never made it to Tampa without the work that Demos provided along the way, including the game-winning kick against Eastern Michigan (in a game that would have likely sent the 'Cats into a doomed spiral had they lost...) and the game-winner against Indiana (Demos was perfect against the Hoosiers, and his second field goal sealed the epic comeback).

Northwestern found success on the field in '09, but few fans found their seats to watch it: average home attendance dwindled to just 24,190, the lowest average home attendance since 1980 (for a historical account of NU's home attendance, click here).

While the 'Cats managed to win eight games in 2009, the records showed an additional ten-win season added to NU football's records this year.  During the course of the past several years, HailToPurple.com had found several sources confirming that Northwestern had won ten games in 1903.  In 2009 NU changed the team's official record to show the ten wins in '03.

What follows are excerpts from some of the comments I posted on this site during the course of the 2009 season.  Please note that the comments posted below are only ones written by me.  As with last year, the bulk of articles on HailToPurple.com in 2009 came from jhodges and the other contributors.  For their 2009 commentary and analysis, please check out the pages for jhodges, the Waterboy and the Lowes Line.

NU Welcomes Class of 2013 [posted Feb. 4, 2009]

On Wednesday Northwestern formally announced its Class of 2013 recruiting group, 18 verbal commitments from players spanning nearly every position.  The current slate of recruits leans a little toward the defensive side of the ball, with eight on offense and nine on defense; six are on the lines.  There are at least five linebackers in the group, with the addition last week of Damien Proby.  For the first time in two years, NU has brought in a kicker.  The staff has again focused on Illinois and Ohio, with five recruits coming from in-state, and four from Ohio.

Evan Watkins, from Carol Stream, is the lone quarterback recruit so far, and ESPN has given him good marks for arm strength.  Linemen, however, are the highest-rated recruits so far in this class.  Offensive tackle Patrick Ward is a Rivals four-star recruit, and Davon Custis is a highly-sought defensive end who committed to NU two weeks ago, and has been given four stars by Scout.

At the end of Signing Day, Rivals ranked NU's incoming class 58th in nation (down three from last week), which is leagues better than Rivals' ranking of 73rd for NU last year, and just below the 53rd spot Rivals gave the 'Cats in 2007.  Rivals rates the current Wildcat recruiting class at eighth in the conference, above Indiana, Purdue and Iowa.  Ohio State is the leading Big Ten recruiting class for Rivals, at the #2 spot in the country.

Scout.com takes a slightly dimmer view of the 'Cats' new group, placing them at 69th (unchanged from last week) in the nation, just ahead of Iowa.  Scout does list Custis as a four-star, but gives most of NU's other commits lower ratings than Rivals.

Rivals and Scout, however, have both ranked NU lower in the Big Ten than the Chicago Tribune (sixth) and recruiting analysit Tom Lemming (fifth).

Congratulations and good luck to this promising group of soon-to-be Wildcats!

Graham-Grange Fire Bell Named a Sweet Sioux
Replacement Finalist [posted March 31]

The University of Illinois and NU announced Tuesday that the two schools will hold a vote during the month of April to determine the replacement for the Sweet Sioux Trophy.  Among the four finalists: the Graham-Grange Fire Bell.  Links below:

Spring Game 2009 Provides Encouraging Glimpses
[posted April 25]

In between bouts of rain and wind, Northwestern managed to hold its 2009 spring game before a nice-sized crowd at Ryan Field.   The game, briefly delayed by the weather system that tore through the Chicago area, showcased the next wave of offensive skill talent and also showed that the defense has the depth to compete again this fall.

Although the defense has been hampered by injuries for much of the spring session, and some if its starters did not play last Saturday, the defense still looked solid, with the secondary flying to the ball and the backup defensive line holding their own.

After the game, Coach Fitzgerald made it clear that senior quarterback Mike Kafka is the Wildcats' starter.  Kafka did look impressive, throwing well into a brutal wind and running with the same speed that fans saw last year against Minnesota.  Backup QB Dan Persa also did a nice job, and also looked good running with the ball.  NU's running back crew also stepped up: Jeravin Matthews looked like a slippery bullet, slashing across the field for a great touchdown run.  Alex Daniel and Stephen Simmons also had a great practice.  All three rushed for at least 6 yards per carry.  Special teams also looked good, with punter / kicker Stefan Demos nailing five field goals.

It's always difficult, as a casual fan, to judge a team based on a spring game, and even more so this year because of the players sitting out on defense.  However, the team show great discipline and spirit, and the practice left most with a very positive outlook.

Below is a linked file to some clips from the festivities from Wildcat Alley and the Spring Game.

NU and Illinois to Play for Land of Lincoln [posted April 26]

As the spring game progressed at Ryan Field, Northwestern and the University of Illinois revealed that they will compete this fall for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.  The new trophy is the result of a search conducted by the two schools to find a replacement for the Sweet Sioux, retired after last year's game.

According to the joint press release, the two schools decided that Land of Lincoln "would best represent all citizens of the state, as the two schools are the only Big Ten institutions located in the state of Illinois. The new trophy also coincides with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday."

The news release does not give any details about the trophy itself, only that NU and Illinois are "working together to create the new trophy."  The new rivalry was one of four finalists in an online poll that the two schools conduced throughout April.  According to the winning entry, the Land of Lincoln Trophy will be "A replica of Lincoln's stove pipe hat mounted on a piece of White Oak (Illinois' state tree)."  However, the press release does not mention or confirm that the trophy will take the form described by the candidate poll.

. . . The Land of Lincoln Trophy is going to provide NU with a great opportunity to increase its identity with the state, which has been challenging for NU.  And it will provide a renewed interest in the series and good national publicity for the game this fall.  It will also provide a nice tie-in for the game with the other national events celebrating Lincoln's birth bicentennial.

Media 2009 Previews and Predictions for the 'Cats
[posted and updated throughout the summer]

The annual college football magazines have appeared at the newsstands, offering their picks and predictions.  The slate of previews typically begins with the annual magazines from Athlon and Lindy's and concludes with the Big Ten's August media event, when the conference announces its official front runner.

In part due to the economic crisis, and partially due to the shift from print to online media, there are fewer preview magazines for college football than there have been in years.  Athlon and Lindy's are still around to inaugurate the preview season, and Phil Steele's publication remains the most anticipated, but others have closed shop or moved entirely to the Internet.

One upcoming, can't-miss preview will come not in print or on the Web: the Big Ten Network's extended preview of NU will air August 20.

Typically, the print prognosticators do not favor NU.  Of course, most of these previews are written by magazines trying to sell copies, and favoring the biggest teams (that is to say, the teams with the biggest followings) is a profitable strategy.  However, NU has occasionally bucked that trend and the conventional thinking: in 2001, coming off its Big Ten title, NU was a Big Ten favorite in many of the preseason predictions.

For the past few years, however, most media typically place NU at ninth place in the conference, ahead of Indiana and one school from the group of Illinois, Michigan State or Minnesota.  There is also what I call the "Heinz Line" at the 57 spot nationally: if a previewer favors NU, it will place the 'Cats just above the 57th spot among the ranked Division I-A teams; a bad prognostication consigns NU to a lower rank.  If the sportswriter has no overly optimistic or pessimistic feel for the team, he will invariably rank NU at 57.

As for last year's previews and predictions, the most accurate was from
Mel Kiper.  Kiper's 8-4 pick was only one win off, and it edged out very good predictions from Phil Steele and the Chicago Tribune.  Sports Illustrated also came close, earning special mention for ranking NU so far ahead of Michigan. 

There was a tie last year for the dog pick.  The worst predictions were from Lindy's and USA Today.

As has been the case since summer 2000, HailToPurple.com is posting a recap of what the larger 'Net and print publications have predicted so far for NU.      

The 2009 Wildcat Predictions:
  • Let's start with the big one: Phil Steele, who has had a nice run with predicting how the 'Cats will fare.  Phil isn't as high on NU this year, putting it in ninth place in the conference, tied with Purdue and ahead of Indiana.  Steele puts Penn State at the top of the conference, with Ohio State and Illinois tied for second.  In his "Power Poll," Steele ranks NU 70th (the 57 spot goes to Missouri).  Steele notes that NU has lost a lot of seniors, but that "they had 37 starts lost last year to injuries (16th most in the nation).  While NU will not improve their record for the first time in Fitzgerald's tenure. . . the 'Cats should be bowl eligible for the seventh time in the last eight years."  Steele later predicts that NU will play in the Motor City Bowl against Central Michigan.  Steele does list Corey Wootton the eighth best defensive end in the country.
  • Last year Lindy's tabbed the 'Cats for last in the conference.  This year Lindy's predicts NU will finish eighth, ahead of MinnyIndyPurdue.  Lindy's also puts NU over the Heinz Line, at 51st.  The magazine makes a big deal of NU's supposed light 2009 schedule, but does mention that NU will carry enough Big Ten wins to travel to a bowl.
  • Athlon placed NU at 53rd in the nation last year; this year the magazine is unusually optimistic about the Wildcats, propelling them to 39th place nationally, the highest 2009 projection for NU so far.  Athlon predicts a sixth place conference finish, and ranks Wootton fourth nationally in his position.
  • This year The Sporting News does not have full national rankings, just the top 25 preseason (which does not include NU).  TSN projects NU at ninth in the Big Ten, ahead of the Indiana wonder twins.  TSN does call Wootton the best defensive end in the conference.
  • Turning to cyberspace, Rivals puts NU just under the Heinz Line, at 60th.  That's good for a ninth spot in the conference, ahead of the usual suspects.  Rivals is one of the few media sources so far to call out Mike Kafka, tabbing him with the "keep an eye on" title.  "He has shown he's equipped to make plays with his feet, setting a Big Ten quarterback record for rushing yards in a game (217) in a wild victory at Minnesota last fall."
  • CollegeFootballNews saves its 57th spot this year for... Michigan.  NU it puts in 60th, at the ninth slot in the Big Ten.  CFN isn't too high on the conference this year, ranking only two teams in the top 25, and none in the top ten (Penn State is at #12, just ahead of Ohio State).  CFN calls out NU's loss of Bacher and Sutton, and-- very interestingly-- mentions Andrew Brewer as the "key player to a successful season."  Give CFN credit for one thing: they have raised the bar for NU.  They write that the season will be a success if "the Wildcats win nine games again... and a bowl."  CFN also calls out NU as the Big Ten team that will surprise: "The defense will be up to Pat Fitzgerald's high standards, the offensive line should be among the Big Ten's best, and the backfield will crank out rushing yards in chunks [making CFN one of the few sources to praise the potential of NU's rushing game]."  CFN predicts 7-5 in the regular season.
  • Andy Gamm's thefinalscore.net typically predicts NU in ninth place in the conference, and this year he puts NU in... ninth place, ahead of the Hoilers (or is that the Boosiers?).  By the way, lets review The Final Score's most recent predictions for NU:  2003: 11th (real finish: 7th); 2004: 9th (real: 4th); 2005: 7th (3rd); 2006: 9th (8th); 2007: 9th (7th); 2008: 9th (4th).
  • Webmaster James Howellcalculates weekly "Power Rankings" during the season.  His 2009 preseason power ratings have NU in 58th place (he give #57 to hated Notre Dame).  This is a considerable step above last year's 75th ranking preseason.
  • Dennis Dodd at CBS Sports ranks NU a little lower, at 67th, just below Minnesota.
  • Adam Rittenberg at ESPN's Big Ten blog ranks NU's secondary second in the Big Ten and its offensive line fourth in the conference, and he calls Al Netter and Ben Burkett All- Big Ten candidates.  Rittenberg predicts between six and nine wins for the '09 'Cats and a second consecutive bowl season.
  • Other writers at ESPN, however, aren't so optimistic.  Mark Schlabach calls NU one of the teams most likely to "freefall" vs. last year, and predicts no bowl game for the 'Cats.   Bruce Feldman's prediction isn't much rosier: he puts NU in the Motor City / Pizza Pizza Bowl.
  • The media reps voted in late July, and this year's Big Ten media poll put Ohio State in the number one spot and the conference's official frontrunner, followed by Penn State and Michigan State.
  • Sports Illustrated, which was high on NU last year, is optimistic about them again this year, placing NU sixth in the Big Ten, just behind Illinois, and above Wisconsin.  It ranks the 'Cats 42nd overall, just ahead of Clemson.  SI predicts that the 'Cats will sweep the non-conference before going 4-4 in the Big Ten.  However, SI only predicts the Motor City Bowl for NU, apparently forseeing another team or two stepping over the 'Cats in the bowl pecking.
We should also note that the USA Today Coaches Poll has released its preseason rankings.  NU, though unranked, did pick up five points in the poll.  The 'Cats got one vote in the preseason AP Poll.

Ed. note: Each year's Season Review Page includes the media's preseason predictions.  Which was the media source with the most accurate prediction for 2009?  The winners this year are Athlon and Sports Illustrated.  For the second straight year SI did a good job predicting the 'Cats' performance, and both SI and Athlon picked NU 6th in the Big Ten and bowl-bound.  NU, of course, finished fourth.

And who earned this year's dog pick?  Several sources picked NU for ninth in the Big Ten, but The Sporting News and Phil Steele (yes, Steele) earn bottom honors for '09.  The Sporting News can always be counted on for a bad pick.  Steele also grabs the bottom spot for his double-whammy picking NU 9th and Illinois 2nd.

NU Throttles Towson [posted Sept. 5]

NU cruised past Towson as it opened its 2009 campaign at Ryan Field, pasting the Tigers 47 to 14.  The game provided a tune up more than it did a challenge for the 'Cats, and Coach Fitzgerald used the scrimmage to rotate his quarterbacks, runningbacks and other players freely.  Even with limited snaps, Mike Kafka passed for 192 yards.  Freshman RB Arby Fields notched two of the Wildcats' six touchdowns. . .

Trib Article Featuring Schapiro [posted Oct. 8]

. . . Teddy Greenstein gives us this outstanding article about NU's new president, Morton Schapiro, and his dedication to Wildcat sports.  Anyone who knows the history of NU's football program is aware of just how important support of the team from the president on down is for its success, and how the lack of support at the top can destroy it (I had outlined the chilling account of the latter example in my book).

It's heartening to hear a president who is a true leader in the academic world say "I'd like to go back to the Rose Bowl, take another shot at SC," as opposed to "I think having a bad football team can help academic standards" (actual quote from a previous president whose name began with "S" and ended with "trotz"). . .

Spartan Homecoming?  Ramming Speed [posted Oct. 16]

NU prepares its usual road game homecoming float,
this time for Michigan State's festivities...

NU's Halloween History [posted Oct. 29]

NU fans have seen great things happen on Halloween, just not recently.

This will be the 16th Halloween game in NU's history. The 'Cats are 6-8 (with one tie) so far on October 31, but haven't had much luck of late: they have a six-game losing streak dating to 1964.

NU played its first Halloween game in 1891 in Milwaukee, of all places, against the Badgers.  The team sported new purple and gold stocking caps and new uniforms.  NU Player Ransom Kinnicott filled in as coach for the missing Knowleton Ames.  Kinnicott led the Purple to a scoreless tie.

The second Halloween game was on Thursday afternoon, October 31, 1895 at Sheppard Field against Rush Medical - Lake Forest (Rush-Lake Forest fielded a varsity team in the mid 1890s and also played Michigan). Alvin Culver's team took apart the pre-docs, 24-0.

The third Halloween game was a big one. NU played at Illinois in 1903 and edged the Illini, 12-11. This close win gave the Purple its first conference title.

The fourth NU Halloween game was the very last game ever played at old Northwestern Field, in 1925. The 'Cats beat Indiana 17-14. Crews began dismantling the wooden stands soon after, and NU played its final home game of 1925 at Soldier Field (the now famous win over Michigan).

Halloween game number five came in the middle of NU's 1931 Big Ten title run, and the victim was Illinois, which NU spanked 32-6.

The sixth Halloween game was the biggest of all, even bigger than Purplepalooza 2009 would be if NU beats Penn State. On October 31, 1936, on NU's Homecoming, with a nearly-national audience listening on radio, NU defeated Minnesota 6-0. The win shattered Minny's 28-game undefeated streak, gave NU the unshared Big Ten crown, and gave the 'Cats a claim for a national title (which Minny would go on to get anyway, at least as far as the A.P. was concerned).

The Gophers got revenge, handing NU its first Halloween loss in 1942. Since then, a black cat has crossed the Wildcats' path more often than not. NU's last Halloween game came during the dreadful 1998 season, against Michigan State.  The Spartans beat NU 29 to 5, a spooky football score, indeed.

Steve Reid, 1914-2009 [posted Nov. 2]

. . . NU's 1936 captain and MVP has died.  Steve Reid was the team physician for the Wildcats for decades, beginning in 1950.  Reid died October 31.  He was 94.

In addition to captaining one of NU's greatest teams, Reid was an All-American guard and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.  He represented NU in the old East-West Shrine Game.

Reid was a Chicago native (Leo HS).  According to his College Hall of Fame bio, "During World War II he served as a Major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was awarded the Presidential Citation with three battle stars."

The '36 squad's greatest game, and Reid's greatest triumph as a player, came, of course, on Halloween, in the famous game against the Gophers, which was described in the coverage leading to this year's Halloween game against Penn State.

[posted Nov. 7]

'Cats Fell #4 Iowa, 17-10 [posted Nov. 7]

What is Wildcat Football if not totally the most unpredictable and entertaining ticket in college football?

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, it launched the Wildcats into surprising bowl eligibility, 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 last year.  Iowa was the fourth-ranked BCS team, which makes them the highest-ranked team to fall to the 'Cats since the Miami Hurricanes lost at Dyche Stadium in the 1967 opener.  Miami was the #1 team in the UPI poll.  On the road, NU last beat a #4 team at the Rose Bowl, when they downed #4 Cal in 1949.  NU has never before beaten a #4 or better team in the opposing team's stadium.

The loss comes just a week after Iowa's football team made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title "Still Perfect," adding to the S.I. Jinx legend.

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.  Stanzi suffered an ankle injury, and his status for Iowa's upcoming game with Ohio State is not known.

The game began, however, in a relatively unsurprising way.  On Iowa's first drive, facing third and seven from his own 26, Stanzi fired a pass to Marvin McNutt for a 74-yard touchdown (even if he hadn't, I'd have still found a way to mention Marvin McNutt, because, well, I just like typing Marvin McNutt). 

The 'Cats responded... with a three and out.  The NU defense continued to have problems on Iowa's second drive, giving up a 30-yard pass and an 11-yard rush.  However, the Wildcat D prevented Iowa from finding the red zone a second straight time, and Iowa settled for a field goal and a ten-point lead.

Iowa is typically overjoyed to hold a ten-point lead in a first quarter, and indeed they were: the Hawkeyes had proved throughout the season to be a fourth quarter team.  No fear, Iowa fans: the Hawkeyes would pull out their Q4 pixie dust (Mr. Ferentz's own words, by the way, from a week or so back...) and make it so.  Right?

With the Wildcat defense toughening up and the NU offense temporarily stalled, the teams swapped punts and settled into field position.  The field battle was helped when Jordan Mabin snagged a Stanzi pass in the second quarter.  Iowa would ultimately suffer four turnovers in the game, which drained what little pixie dust that they might have had left.

With field position favoring the 'Cats, Iowa began a drive at their own six yard line.  On second down, Stanzi dropped back to pass from his end zone, and Wootton took him down with a clean, hard hit.  The resulting touchdown put NU within three and changed the game's momentum for good. 

The momentum continued to roll NU's way on the succeeding drive.  Quentin Davie picked off Hawkeye backup QB James Vandenberg to set up the eventual TD pass from Dan Persa to Drake Dunsmore.

Marvin McNutt!  NU led the #4 team in the nation, 14 to 10.

Of course, Iowa could make the necessary halftime adjustments.  Right?  Not when they're playing the unpredictable.  Not when they're playing the entertaining.

And from here on out, the game-- and NU-- was exactly that.  Iowa had to rely on its backup quarterback.  NU had to rely on... Persa?  No, Persa left with a hand injury.  Kafka?

"Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty,
if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away;
but this opinion was all that he was permitted."
--[Franz] Kafka

No, even with a sore hammy, Kafka could not drop the Earth.  He helped to set up field position in the fourth quarter (with help from Mr. Brewer) for a Stefan Demos 47-yard field goal.  Now sporting a seven-point lead, NU could withstand a final assault from the pixie dust blowers.


Right!  After some savvy clock management and several great stands by the Wildcat defense, Northwestern held on and accomplished the magnificent.  Congratulations to the team and to the coaches for a job accomplished in spite of a lot of setbacks.  Thanks for providing the unpredictable, and the entertaining.


(AP Photo)

Putting the Iowa Win in Historical Context:
NU's Wins Over Top-Ten Teams [posted Nov. 8]

The following is a list of all of the times Northwestern has defeated a top-ten ranked program.  Note that, with a few exceptions, these rankings are based on the Associated Press poll, which began in 1936. 

There are some wins before 1936 that should be mentioned.  Even though there were no rankings, it is likely that the following teams would have been ranked in the national top ten when they fell to NU:

  • 1895: NU 22, Chicago 6.  Home Game.  Chicago was 6-0 coming into the game, and would likely have bucked east-coast bias at the time for a top-ten ranking.
  • 1896: NU 46, Chicago 6.  Road Game.  This was a BIG one.  Chicago was 12-0 coming into the game, and had outscored its opponents 325 to nothing up to hitting the Purple buzzsaw.  Chicago would have been likely ranked either 1 or 2 coming into the game.
  • 1917: NU 21, Michigan 12.  Home Game.  Michigan had scorched its first eight opponents, but had suffered its first loss, to Penn, just a week before losing to NU.  It is possible that the Wolverines would still have been ranked in a top ten at the time.
  • 1925: NU 3, Michigan 2.  Home Game (played at Soldier Field).  Another big one.  Michigan was undefeated and unscored upon, having won five games by a total of 180 to 0.  Michigan would have been ranked number one, without a doubt.
  • 1927: NU 19, Ohio State 13.  Road Game.  Ohio State was highly regarded coming into the season and was 2-0 coming into the game.  It is likely that OSU would have cracked a top ten list.
  • 1930: NU 19, Ohio State 2.  Home Game.  Same story as 1927-- OSU was 2-0 coming in, and very highly regarded.
  • 1930: NU 14, Tulane 0.  Home Game.  Tulane was 1-0 coming into Dyche Stadium and had not lost a game since early 1928-- 15 straight games!  Tulane would have been in the top five.
  • 1935: NU 14, Notre Dame 7.  Road Game.  Notre Dame would almost certainly have been a number one team if the polls had started in '35, rather than '36.  The Irish were 6-0 and had just knocked off Ohio State in the original "Game of the Century."
...And here are the NU wins against top ten teams since the AP poll's debut:

  • 1936: NU 6-0 over #1 Minnesota.  Home Game.  The AP Poll had begun just two weeks before, and Minny was ranked #1 each week.  Until NU upended them at Dyche Stadium.  The only time NU has defeated an AP #1 team.   NU briefly took the #1 crown, until Minny reclaimed it.
  • 1938: NU 6-3 over #2 Minnesota.  Home Game.
  • 1942: NU 3-0 over #7 Texas.  Home Game.  NU's only win in '42, but it was a huge one.
  • 1945: NU 26-14 over #4 Purdue.  Home Game.
  • 1948: NU 19-16 over #8 Minnesota.  Home Game.
  • 1948: NU 20-14 over #4 Cal.  1949 Rose Bowl.  Highest ranked opponent NU had beaten away from Evanston, until 2009.
  • 1949: NU 21-20 over #7 Michigan.  Home Game.
  • 1950: NU 14-7 over #6 Illinois.  Home Game.
  • 1958: NU 29-28 over #10 Washington State.  Home Game
  • 1959: NU 45-13 over #2 Oklahoma.  Home Game.  Probably the most famous game involving NU knocking off a top four team.  Parseghian's signature win.
  • 1959: NU 14-10 over #5 Iowa.  Road Game.  Just a week after the win over Oklahoma, NU stormed into Iowa and did this.
  • 1961: NU 12-10 over #8 Notre Dame.  Road Game.  The third of four straight wins vs. the Irish.
  • 1962: NU 18-14 over #6 Ohio State.  Road Game.
  • 1967: NU 12-7 over UPI #1 Miami.  Home Game.  Miami was #8 in the AP.
  • 1995: NU 17-15 over #9 Notre Dame.  Road Game. 
  • 1995: NU 19-13 over #7 Michigan.  Road Game.
  • 1996: NU 17-16 over #6 Michigan.  Home Game.
  • 2000: NU 47-44 over #7 Wisconsin.  Road Game. 
  • 2004: NU 33-27 over #7 Ohio State.  Home Game.
  • 2009: NU 17-10 over BCS #4 Iowa.  Road Game.  Iowa was #8 in the AP.

Iowa Win: Flush It [posted Nov. 9]

. . . This is not the week to celebrate the win over Iowa.  This is the week to prepare for the game of the year: NU vs. Illinois-- the Land of Lincoln debut.  The Wildcats are trying to secure a bowl game by beating a red-hot and very dangerous Illini team that has just taken down two solid Big Ten teams and is looking forward to slapping down its third straight.

For this week, HailToPurple.com considers NU's record for the year 0-0.  Everyone needs to focus on the one game that matters: ILLINOIS.

For those who do want to bask in the glow of the Hawkeye win, here is the HailToPurple.com Iowa Win Special Edition.  Enjoy!  Or not...

'Cats Head to Champaign with Much on the Line [posted Nov. 9]

NU fans are still giddy from the intoxicating fumes of wild, slapdash victory over a hated rival-- and the 'Cats didn't even play Notre Dame.  Wait, I'm talking about Iowa.  And so is everyone.  But, lurking in the navy and burnt orange shadows lie a pack of jackals, ready to tear into our 'Cats.  And no one seems to be concerned with them.

Well, they should be the source of a lot of concern.  The Illini, who started the season expecting a treasure trove of glory and instead got Al Capone's vault, have quietly gotten as good as they had been advertised in the preseason.  Two weeks ago Illinois hosted Michigan and tallied its first win over the Wolverines in Memorial Stadium in a generation.  Sure, Michigan is a struggling team right now, but Illinois simply outgunned Big Blue, piling up 31 unanswered points in the second half.  Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford both had explosion play runs that padded the 278 rushing yards put up by the Illini.  The much-criticized Juice "Juice" Williams threw for 123 yards and a touchdown.

And last week Illinois succeeded in doing something the 2009 Wildcats did not: it beat Minnesota.  Despite 22 fourth quarter points by the Gophers, Illinois dominated for a second straight week.  Williams suffered an injury, but no matter: Jacob "Jacob" Charest proceeded to throw for 185 yards and a touchdown.  No matter which QB is in the game this Saturday, NU's injury-shredded secondary will be tested roughly.

If Northwestern is to stand a chance on Saturday, it needs to treat this game as it treated the game with Iowa: NU needs to come in with an underdog vibe.  Because, you know what?  The 'Cats are underdogs-- the Illini are a five-point favorite!  That's right.  Knocking off Iowa might mean something to 'Cat fans, but to the rest of the audience, Illinois is poised to pounce, it's motivated (just recall last year's game to get a feel for Illinois' motivation...), and it's ready.  Is Northwestern?

This Saturday NU and Illinois will unveil the Land of Lincoln Trophy, the newest piece of hardware in the Wildcat - Illini trophy case.  The LOL Trophy has not yet been publicly unveiled, but NU has announced that the new trophy was designed by political cartoonist Dick Locher.

The experts think that Illinois will have the last laugh.  They thought that with the Hawkeyes, too.  It's totally up to you, NU.  There's a lot to gain.  But it starts with maintaining focus this week on the team that is lurking, hungry, and waiting.

Grab Your Hat: We're Going to a Bowl! [posted Nov. 14]

Northwestern held on to its "hat," hanging on to a fourth quarter lead to defeat Illinois 21 to 16 in Champaign.  In doing so, the Wildcats secured the new Land of Lincoln Trophy, beat the Illini for the sixth time in the last seven years, denied the Illini a bowl for the second straight year, secured a bowl for themselves for the second straight year (for only the second time in NU history), and have guaranteed the best three-year run for the program since 1929-1931 (in terms of sustained success, and since 1995-1997 in terms of number of wins).

The 'Cats and the Illini had a sluggish first half, but the Wildcats exploded in the third and into the fourth to take a  21 to 3 lead.  However, the 'Cats became too conservative, missed field goals began to take a toll, and the Illini woke up and threatened in the game's final minutes.  A series of defensive stands and a game winning (and very controversial) interception sealed the deal for NU.

The first quarter was a string of punts and missed field goals for both teams.  The Illini broke the deadlock at the start of the second quarter when an 11-play drive netted a 30-yard field goal.  Mikel Leshoure led the drive for Illinois with a series of spectacular runs.  Leshoure would total 76 rushing yards for the day, leading a host of Illini rushers.

The teams returned to their stalemate for much of the rest of the second quarter, until Nate Williams snagged a Charest pass on the very next play after a Wildcat turnover on downs.  Kafka, allowed to return immediately to the field, threw first-down strikes to Jacob Schmidt and Drake Dunsmore, and then unleashed a cruise missile to Zeke Markshausen for a 28-yard TD.

After again swapping punts to begin the second half,  Illinois pinned NU to its own one inch line.  However, the 'Cats began to drive again, thanks to Scott Concannon's 13-yard rush and a pair of huge catches by Andrew Brewer.  Nearing the Illini red zone, Mike Kafka tossed another grenade to Markshausen to give NU the first and goal, which Kafka eventually pounded for another score, a score that concluded a 99+ yard drive.  Kafka eventually tallied 305 passing yards in the game, announcing his full return to form.  For his part, Markshausen had 104 yards for the day.

On the ensuing drive, Leshoure was unable to reassert his dominance, and Marshall Thomas dropped him for a critical one-yard loss at midfield, setting up long yardage which the Pumpkinheads failed to convert.  

By then, the Wildcat offense braintrust was thinking Arby's®.  Arby Fields led the next drive, pounding the Illini with runs of 12 and 5 yards.  A well-timed Illinois late hit on Kafka kept the drive going, and NU was poised to strike as the third quarter closed.

Kafka opened the fourth quarter with a 19-yard pass to Jeremy Ebert, and Mr. Fields toughed it out to reach the goal and give NU its seemingly insurmountable 21 to 3 lead.  However, Illinois revived itself on the next drive, tore down the field and scored, but the NU D held to deny an Illini two-point conversion. 

On the ensuing drive, NU was in a position potentially to put its foot on Illinois' throat, having the ball on the Illini 14 yard-line with a fourth down and one yard.  Rather than taking the aggressive position and going for it, NU instead chose to kick, and Stefan Demos uncharacteristically missed his third field goal of the game.  The Illini, with a renewed life and momentum, then drove 80 yards and struck to narrow NU's lead to 21-16.  NU, continuing to play conservatively, tried to burn time off the clock with its next drive, and ate nearly three minutes before punting again.

The Illini, now in a position to launch a game-winning drive, stalled out in the face of renewed Wildcat defensive resistance.  On fourth down and one from their own 30 yard line, the Illini's last gasp appeared headed to a first down reception.  Instead, as the Illini receiver went down on his back and tried to get possession, Sherrick McManis tore the ball from him and made the most improbable, wild interception of his career.  The pick sealed the win for NU and with it the bronze hat of intrastate glory.


A Sea Change West of Lake Michigan [posted Dec. 6]

For the first time since the January 1, 1997 Citrus Bowl, the Northwestern Wildcats are returning to the state of Florida for a football game, and in a stunning development, they are returning on January 1.

How stunning is it that the Outback Bowl selected 8-4 Northwestern over 9-3 Wisconsin?  It should not be: NU had the head-to-head win over the Badgers, the 'Cats had reeled off three impressive wins to finish the year as a powerful and impressive representative of the conference, and NU fans-- long parched for a cool drink of the Florida postseason juice-- are ready to descend on the Sunshine State with abandon.

And yet, this was a stunner.  As CollegeFootballNews.com derided NU: "it's still Northwestern." 

No more.

Assuming Northwestern fans represent in Tampa and the Wildcats bring the game of which they are fully capable, we might years from now look back at December 6, 2009 with the kind of awe we as fans feel when we look back at September 2, 1995.  That bright fall day was the moment when faith in NU-- belief without evidence-- was illuminated, and Northwestern had its evidence: NU could beat a top-ten team and anything was possible on the field for this team.  December 6, 2009 might just be remembered as the day when Northwestern Football truly came into its own off the field.  It's not still Northwestern.  It is the New Northwestern, with 15 years of excellence under its belt and a rising, powerful program.  Work begun by Arnold Weber, and tended by Henry Bienen, Morton Schapiro, Mark Murphy, Jim Phillips, Gary Barnett, Randy Walker, Pat Fitzgerald, and a legion of talented and overachieving players is now maturing.  They tended a fragile crop, and now the harvest is come. 

The challenge and risk of that harvest is great.  This is a big moment for the program, and a lot comes with that.  Fail, and the failure is magnified.  Succeed, and the potential is tremendous.

This is a shift.  Yesterday the Big Ten witnessed a sea change in the order of the conference.  That the shift came from Central Street should not be stunning, and that is the very first sign of the significance of what has happened.  The New Northwestern has arrived. 

NU Sells Out Ticket Allotment [posted Dec. 30]

. . . President Schapiro tonight announced that NU has sold its Outback Bowl ticket allotment.  Selling all 11,000 of its allotted tickets, given the economy, is a significant achievement that not all Big Ten teams were able to accomplish this season.  This is a major step forward for the program. . .

It's Time [posted Dec. 31]

Northwestern's faithful have converged on Tampa, and the area outside Raymond James Stadium is bustling, loud and glittering with amethyst regalia.

But on Central Street it's quiet near the old stone stadium.  Only memories haunt Dyche Stadium, ghosts who, though silent, turn their gaze southward and restively wait for the final chapter of their story.  These memories of 61 seasons of unfinished business are at the edge of their tale: the Wildcats have in their grasp a New Years Day bowl game and the ability to finish their work and write this finale.

What will they write?  The memories wait.

When Wildcat greats like Mike Adamle, Andy and Jack Cvercko, Joe Collier, James Andreotti, Tom Myers, Larry Onesti, and Ron Burton-- All-Americans all-- fought for victory, they could only fight for a place in the Rose Bowl, and they all came up just short of that last chapter.  They scribed their deeds into the Dyche Stadium grass, gave NU some of its greatest games, and achieved top-ten rankings (during several seasons even grabbing the #1 and #2 spots in the nation), but they couldn't reach the final objective, the goal singularly achieved by Voigt's band and no one else.

The teams of the 1970s and '80s had more opportunities, more possible bowls, but less hope.  Hamstrung with a lack of school support, little depth, and a disparity of resources between themselves and their Big Ten colleagues, Wildcat warriors like Eric Hutchinson, Chris Hinton, Greg Boykin, and Chuck Kern fought their best, but fell with the team.

Every NU fan knows the recent deeds of the Wildcats, the work by players like Coach Fitzgerald, Steve Schnur, Darnell Autry, Brian Musso, Barry Gardner, Damien Anderson, Zak Kustok, Noah Herron, Jason Wright, and Brett Basanez.  For the first time in two generations, Northwestern was making it to bowl games.  Yet the last page of the story stayed unwritten, the business unfinished, the memories stilled and lurking.

The Northwestern program has transformed in this generation.  It's capable, it has the talent and the will.  The Wildcat Bowl Drought, rest assured, will end and it will end soon.

So why not now?  It's up to this current pack of 'Cats, these Happy Few, to make that so, to write in sweat and power the last words of the Northwestern Story, to finish this business, and to quench the old memories and create new ones.  Many who dreamt even recently of this day sadly won't be there to see it, but their memories inspire us and will be with the Purple in spirit.

History waits for John Evans' Band of Brothers to complete the work.  It is time.

[posted January 1, 2010]

The 2010 Outback Bowl:
'Cats Come Up Short
OT Loss Ends Valiant, Bizarre Comeback
[posted Jan. 1]

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.

Mike Kafka, in his second to last game wearing the Northwestern helmet (he will make an encore in the Shrine Bowl later this month), was a study in contrast.  Kafka suffered through five interceptions (including two in the endzone and a couple of deflected, fluky picks), but he also kept his cool and torched Auburn for 532 passing yards, not only an NU bowl record, but an overall school record as well.  He set other NU bowl records, including his five touchdowns (matching Peyton Manning's performance against NU in the '97 Citrus Bowl).  Kafka played Northwestern Football as it is defined: blasting through tough odds and never giving up.  Kafka's fourth quarter performance alone should get him a place among NU's immortal greats.

The game, however, began poorly for the 'Cats.  Kafka's second pass of the game was tipped straight up and intercepted, eventually leading to a Tiger touchdown.  NU's second drive went 17 plays and chewed nearly eight minutes before Kafka suffered an endzone interception that Auburn's McFadden goose-stepped 100 yards for the score.  McFadden's unsportsmanlike penalty was one of several that Auburn suffered during the game, as the Tigers seemed determined to rout NU and self-destruct simultaneously.

Auburn proved able to do neither.  On the next Wildcat drive Kafka turned on the jets, and his 39-yard pass to Andrew Brewer gave NU their first score and allowed the 'Cats to join the battle in earnest.  In the second quarter, NU had a chance to cut Auburn's lead further, but Stefan Demos missed the first of his field goal tries.  Demos had a world-class bad day in Tampa, missing both field goal tries (including the fourth quarter, last-second try that would have won the game) as well as an extra point (which NU would recoup, spectacularly, with a wild two-point conversion on its final touchdown).

Auburn regained its 14-point lead, but failed to extend it further.  Sherrick McManis snagged a pick late in the second quarter, setting up a strong Wildcat drive that, unfortunately, also ended with an endzone interception.

Again in the third quarter Auburn appeared set to take an insurmountable 21-point lead, but Brian Peters performed a heroic circus catch to intercept at the NU one-yard line, and he kept the 'Cats in the game.  Kafka again connected with Brewer for a long bomb to bring NU back to a one-TD deficit.  With the Wildcat defense coming to the challenge and Nate Williams rampaging through the Tiger backfield, Auburn relinquished the ball to NU for the potential tying score.

And tie NU did, when at the Wildcat 34-yard line Kafka connected with Drake Dunsmore.  Dunsmore slipped a tackle and then became the Man Who Would Not Be Denied, tear-assing through the Tiger defense like a wild man for 66 yards.  Dunsmore's Touchdown of Iron Will is my pick for the NU play of the game, which says a lot: there were enough eye-popping plays for a lifetime of bowl action.

Midway through the fourth quarter the tide again turned against NU, and Auburn again took a 14-point lead.  NU, however, played a zombie attack strategy for this bowl: just when you thought it was dead and buried, it returned to feed and menace.  The 'Cats' nine lives and afterlives cycled through with abandon on their drive midway through the fourth quarter, when NU converted three fourth-down attempts to string the drive out and finish with a courageous Kafka burst into the endzone.  On the next Auburn drive Brad Phillips forced a fumble that set up NU's final touchdown and the crazy two-point conversion: a reverse to Brewer that he rifled into the endzone for a touchdown. 

With the game-winning kick sailing right of the mark and the final seconds drained, NU opted to defend to begin overtime and held Auburn to a field goal.  The next ten plays will go down as one of the craziest series in NU history.  A completed pass initially ruled a fumble, a Wildcat first down, then a Kafka sack that initially was also ruled a fumble led to Auburn fans celebrating their win.  But Zombie Nation wasn't done yet.  NU wasn't dead, and Kafka was ruled down.

Facing fourth down in NU's OT efforts, Demos attempted to kick a goal to send the game into a second set, but his kick sailed wide again.  Again Auburn players and fans began to celebrate, and again NU wasn't yet dead: a roughing the kicker penalty kept the game going.  However, Demos was injured, and NU was without a kicking option.  Facing first and goal, NU was nine yards away from the historic moment of the twenty-first century: bowl victory.  But three plays stalled, and the Wildcats again had their hopes pinned on a fourth-down play, only five yards away from the goal. 

Coach Fitzgerald decided to put his freshman kicker on the field for a fake and a modification of the "fastball" fumblerooskie play.  Before ESPN could get its cameras fixed on the action the 'Cats took a quick snap and gave the ball to Zeke Markshausen.  As the line shifted right, so did Markshausen, rather than remaining still for a few more seconds.  The play was blown, and the Auburn defense keyed in to the developing play, knocking Markshausen out of bounds with just 60 inches to go to reach the goal of goals.  While the play was not executed to perfection, the call was a good one, and Coach Fitzgerald stood by it in his post-game conference.  The play was one twitch away from going down as one of the all-time classics in NU history.

The ninth life of the 'Cats was snuffed, and Northwestern added another wild memory to the collage of 61 seasons of the Quest.  They did so in a gritty and gutsy performance, and they did so on the heels of a fantastic eight-win season.  Congratulations and thanks to the Wildcat seniors, among the most successful in the history of the program.