Greatest Games Page


What are the greatest games in Northwestern football history?  If every fan were asked to list his or her top 25 games, no two lists would match.  Do you list just those games you actually attended?  Just games in your lifetime?  And how do you rate the games?  Do you look at margin of victory, entertainment value, overall team effort, the importance of the game to the program or to the season, or other criteria altogether?  Even if each fan used the same judging criteria, I believe each list would still be unique.

The HailToPurple top 25 list includes games from all eras. It changes as needed (and has changed quite substantially since it first posted in 2000).  I try to account for most of the usual criteria: buildup to the game, importance of the game (to the season and to the future of the program), the quality and excitement of NU's play, and the strength of its opponent. This list puts heavy emphasis on games that led to Big Ten championships. 

If you disagree, let me know!  I also list the games that just missed the cut for the top 25.

1. 1995 NU at Notre Dame

NU 17 - Notre Dame 15

Greatest upset in NU history (NU was a 28 point underdog) and the game that signaled the Wildcats' renaissance.  The Chicago Tribune ranked the game #13 in its list of the greatest moments ever in all of Chicago-area sports-- that includes every Bears game, every Bulls game, every Notre Dame game, every Cubs or Sox game-- all of them.

NU was concluding a four-game series with the Irish by opening its season at Notre Dame Stadium against the ninth-ranked Irish.  The Wildcats had not won a season opener since 1975.  Notre Dame had not lost an opener since 1986.  The details of the game are now part of NU legend, especially Gary Barnett's instructions to his team before taking the field in South Bend: "Don't carry me off the field after we win.  Act like you've done this before."

Darnell Autry, a drama major, had no problem acting like he had done this before...

The Wildcats led the entire game.  NU's 17 points came from a Steve Schnur pass to Dave Beazley, a Sam Valenzisi 35-yard field goal, and a 26-yard touchdown pass to D'Wayne Bates-- Bates' first Wildcat reception.  The Irish were held to only 15 points thanks in part to the outstanding defensive work by Pat Fitzgerald, Matt Rice and Casey Dailey.  Throughout the season they, along with Autry, would become Wildcat legends, but this one game ensured that their names would be written in stone in the history of Northwestern football.  What they, and the rest of the team, did on September 2, 1995 simply cannot be overstated: before that game almost no one outside of the team believed that success was possible for Northwestern, and the team itself played by faith-- belief without evidence-- and faith alone.  From this moment on, there was evidence.  Wildcat teams after this game benefitted from that evidence, but this was the game, and these were the players to provide it. 

NU had been rebuilding under Barnett for three years before this game: the Dark Ages lifted in 1992.  But it is the '95 Notre Dame game that will forever be the moment known as Day One, the first day of the new Wildcats.

The heroes of the day: NU's incredible defense.
[All three photos from AP]

2. 1949 Rose Bowl vs. California

NU 20 - Cal 14

The Rose Bowl Championship and among the most dramatic games in Rose Bowl history.  The buildup leading to this game was epic.  NU, having just missed capturing the Big Ten crown, was to face its former coach, Pappy Waldorf, and his #4-ranked, undefeated Bears (the highest ranked team NU would beat outside of Evanston until the 2009 Iowa game). 

The result produced bonfires in Fountain Square, hundreds of snake dancing fans in downtown Chicago, and one of the great, legendary events of NU sports.

3. 2000 Michigan at NU

NU 54 - Michigan 51

The '96 Mich. game, only with every aspect doubled: intensity, excitement, scoring, and emotion.  This time, NU had to score the winning touchdown twice.  The 'Cats notched more offense against Michigan than any other team ever.  The most thrilling game in Dyche/Ryan history, and the one that set up NU's Y2K championship. 

A decade later, many sports media point to this game as one that contributed to the evolution and popularity of the spread offense at a national level.

4. 1995 NU at Michigan

NU 19 - Michigan 13

The Notre Dame win?  Not a fluke.  100,000 very silent football fans watched in shock as their seventh-ranked Wolverines fell at home.  For the first time in 25 years, NU football was being taken seriously on a national level.  Very seriously. 

The game itself was one of the best-played in Wildcat history, and sealed Barnett's reputation as a coaching power.

5. 1936 Minnesota at NU

NU 6 - Minnesota 0

Ended defending national champion and #1-ranked Minnesota's 28-game undefeated streak and gave NU an unshared Big Ten title, a national #1 ranking (for three weeks), and an argument for a share of the national crown.
The buildup to this game of unbeatens was huge. Dyche Stadium had its first sellout in six years (the Depression had reduced attendance for much of the '30s), and the homecoming game was broadcast by radio nationally for the first time.

6. 1996 Michigan at NU

NU 17 - Michigan 16

Back-to-back wins vs. Michigan seemed impossible in the fourth quarter, when sixth-ranked Michigan had a 16-0 lead.  The 'Cats had not really threatened any time in the previous three quarters, but managed to assemble a TD and two field goals before having the ball at midfield with just over 1 minute left.  With 4th down out of field goal range, Musso made a miracle catch for 1st down.  Gowins executed a perfect kick which was recalled by the refs, who weren't ready to restart the clock.  Forced to kick again, Gowins repeated flawlessly, giving NU the win with 8 seconds left. 

NU would achieve not only its repeat win against Michigan, but the repeat conference title as well.

7. 1962 Notre Dame at NU

NU 35 - Notre Dame 6

The zenith of the Era of Ara. A Dyche record 55,752 fans watched NU's rise to the top of the AP poll. 

Myers to Flatley was the call of the day, and Notre Dame dropped its 4th straight to NU.  While perhaps not the most exciting game ever, this one signified NU's dominance at the highest level of college football.

8. 1925 Michigan at NU
(Home Game at Soldier Field)

NU 3 - Michigan 2

Only points scored against Michigan all season.  Years later Fielding Yost insisted that this was the best Michigan team he ever coached.  One of the most heroic defensive stands by NU. 

This game led to changes to the rules of football. NU and Michigan met in a driving monsoon and a morass of mud. NU's safety was intentional and gave the ball back to the 'Cats.

The win paved the way for NU's decade of glory that would begin the following season.

9. 1995 Penn State at NU

NU 21 - Penn State 10

Prime time under the lights at Dyche.  NU controlled the game and the national media afterwards.

Darnell Autry put himself into Heisman contention (he would eventually finish fourth for the the award, NU's highest finish since Otto Graham finished third for the '43 Heisman) by scoring all of NU's three touchdowns.

10. 1930 Wisconsin at NU

NU 20 - Wisconsin 7

This game in mid-November determined the Big Ten, giving Northwestern its third title. Coming into Dyche Stadium, Wisconsin was 5-1-1, outscoring all opponents 206 to 20.
The Wildcats were 6-0 and deadlocked with Michigan for the lead in the conference.

A sold-out Dyche Stadium (a rarity during the Depression) saw the 'Cats stumble out of the gate with a blocked field goal and a Badger TD. NU stormed back with 20 unanswered points to tie Michigan for the Big Ten championship.

11. 1959 Oklahoma at NU

NU 45 - Oklahoma 13

NU rocked the dominant power of the day.  Oklahoma had recently set the NCAA record winning streak (which still stands), and was ranked #2.  NU had been on the rise for two years. 

This game served as a call that NU had returned to elite standing.

12. 1896 NU at Chicago

NU 46 - Chicago 6

NU came this close to taking the inaugural Big Ten title when it swamped its old-time traditional rival for the second straight year. 

Coming into the '96 game, Chicago was 12-0 and had outscored its opponents 325 to nothing before hitting the Purple buzzsaw.

13. 2021 Citrus Bowl vs. Auburn

NU 35 - Auburn 19

This was NU's biggest bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl and the team's best performance during its 2020 Big Ten West-winning season.

The 'Cats took a commanding 14-0 lead against Auburn in the first quarter and never trailed. NU's 16-point win was its largest margin of victory ever against an SEC team.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for 291 yards and three TDs, and scored a fourth TD on a 30-yard run.

14. 2000 NU at Wisconsin

NU 47 - Wisconsin 44 (2 OT)

Road win against the highest-ranked opponent (7th AP / 6th Coaches) in decades.  An exciting game from start to finish, and a defining moment for the 21st Century Wildcats. NU's offense gave its first of several over-the-top performances of 2000.

15. 2013 Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State

NU 34 - Miss. St. 20

NU's first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose eliminated the last vestiges of the Dark Ages, gave the 'Cats their second win vs. an SEC foe-- their tenth overall win-- for the season, placed NU #16 in postseason rankings, and secured win #50 for Fitz, making him the winningest coach in NU history.

16. 1935 NU at Notre Dame

NU 14 - Notre Dame 7

One week after Notre Dame beat Ohio State in the original "Game of the Century."  The Irish were 6-0.

Notre Dame went up 7-0 on a quarterback sneak, but the 'Cats responded with a Cruce to Longfellow pass to tie. A Notre Dame fumble led to NU's second score.

The win led to Pappy Waldorf securing the first-ever national coach of the year award.

17. 2004 Ohio State at NU

NU 33 - Ohio State 27 (1 OT)

The "33" game.  Northwestern broke a 33-year losing streak to OSU, beating the sixth-ranked Buckeyes in overtime in a night game at Ryan Field.  In overtime Noah Herron (#33), on his 33rd carry, scored the game-winning touchdown (and NU's 33rd point). 

Overall, one of the best-played NU games ever, with every position on the field having performed spectacularly.

18. 1943 Otto Graham at Wisconsin

NU 41 - Wisconsin 0

Happy Homecoming, Badgers! This game makes #18 because of one man: Otto Graham accounted for 33 out of NU's 41 points, and he did so in only 16 minutes of game time.

In 9 minutes in the first half and 7 minutes in the second half, Graham ran for three TDs, scored a fourth TD on a 55-yard punt return, threw for a fifth TD, kicked 3 PATs (out of 3 tries), completed 5 for 7 passes, and averaged 8 yards per rush.

The photo is of Graham playing defense in the game.

19. 1892 Michigan at NU
(Home Game Played in Chicago)

NU 10 - Michigan 8

First Meeting with Michigan, at the time the most powerful team in the Midwest.

For a detailed account of this game, click here.

20. 1926 Chicago at NU

NU 37 - Chicago 7

Just two years after NU's valiant effort against Chicago in the "Wildcat Game," the tables had turned and NU was the dominant team in Chicago. 

The game dedicated Dyche Stadium, put an end to the Chicago-NU series forever (Chicago's Coach Stagg, knowing his team would never again overpower NU, refused to schedule them again, out of pride), and secured the Big Ten championship for the Wildcats.

21. 1967 Miami, FL, at NU

NU 12 - Miami 7

Season opener knocked off the #1 UPI-ranked team in the country and sent Wildcat fans into a frenzy. The high point of the Alex Agase era.

NU had lost 15 starters from the 1966 season and were heavy underdogs. The Wildcats' winning score came late in the fourth quarter on a trick play: Melzer gave the ball to Chico Kurzawski; Kurzawski then passed it back to Melzer for the touchdown.

22. 2018 NU at Iowa

NU 14 - Iowa 10

No, this wasn't as good a game as the 2009 win against Iowa (see #23 on this list), and Iowa was unranked in 2018, but this road win by the 'Cats clenched the 2018 Big Ten West title, and it was the the most important game of this great season. It also featured "The Catch that Won the West," Skowronek's reception, arguably one of the top five most amazing plays in NU history.

23. 2009 NU at Iowa

NU 17 - Iowa 10

The Hawkeyes were 9-0 heading into this game, and ranked #4 in the BCS-- the highest-ranked team NU has ever beaten away from Evanston (tying with the Rose Bowl win vs. Cal). 

The 'Cats managed the epic win (which would lead to a January 1 bowl invite) while riddled with injuries.

24. 1931 Minnesota at NU

NU 32 - Minnesota 14

Another '30s win against the powerful Gophers to determine the conference title. 

NU came back from a 14-0 halftime deficit by scoring an unanswered 32. Part of the brilliance of the game was NU's passing attack, during a period when rushing still dominated the Big Ten. Minnesota out-gained NU on the ground, 134 to 88 yards. However, the Wildcats out-gunned Minnesota in the air, 110 to 64 yards.

25. 1962 NU at Ohio State

NU 18 - Ohio State 14

Ohio State was ranked #6.  This win shot NU from #8 to #3 in the AP Poll. 

The game included perhaps the most famous four-down goal line stand in NU history.

Greatest Games Distribution by Decade

Honorable Mention

Games just missing the cut for the Top 25, listed from most recent to earliest:

2020 vs. Wisconsin: NU's daring upset of the #10 Badgers during the truncated COVID season launched the 'Cats into 8th place in the football playoff rankings and gave NU its second division title in three years.

2018 Holiday Bowl vs. Utah
: Third straight bowl win for NU, a profound victory over #17 Utah. Featured one of the finest quarters of play in NU's history, a 28-0 third quarter beatdown.

2016 Pinstripe Bowl vs. Pitt.: Northwestern held #23 Pitt to its lowest point total of the 2016 season to claim its third-ever bowl win. The best goal line stand by NU since the '62 OSU game. Justin Jackson went crazy, running for 224 yards and three TDs.

2014 at Notre Dame: A wild roller coaster of a match. NU, down 11 in the fourth quarter, held on with an astonishing special teams performance to beat #18 ND in overtime, for its fifth-ever win in South Bend.

2009 vs. Wisconsin: thrilling game that set up NU's Outback Bowl appearance.

2009 vs. Indiana: biggest comeback in NU history.

2008 vs. Illinois: a great performance by an injury-plagued team produced NU's ninth win of the season, final possession of the Sweet Sioux trophy, and a warm bowl.

2001 vs. Michigan State: Instant Classic II.  First 57 minutes: a good, defensive struggle.  Last 3 minutes: some of the most exasperating, thrilling, and entertaining football ever played at Dyche/Ryan.

2000 at Minnesota:
"Victory Right" Hail Mary at the end of the game is now the most famous play in NU history.  It capped a 21-point comeback in a game that kept NU alive for the 2000 Big Ten title.

1997 vs. Michigan State: Anwan Jones blocked MSU's "game winning" FG.

1996 vs. Wisconsin: Of all the "Cardiac 'Cats" games of this period, this was perhaps the Cardiac 'Catsiest.

1992 at Illinois: NU, down by 20, tore back to win.

1991 vs. Illinois: Best game during the 1973 - 1991 "Dark Ages." On a rainy day at Dyche Stadium, NU defeated the defending Big Ten champ Illini.

1982 vs. NIU: broke The Streak, sent the goal posts swimming.

1971 at Ohio State: last win against the Bucks until 2004

1945 vs. Purdue: Boilers ranked #4 at the time.

1930 vs. Tulane: Tulane had 15-game winning streak coming in, dating to 1928.

1930 vs. Ohio State: OSU was undefeated coming in.  Win was critical for '30 title

The Moral Victories

Most coaches will claim that there are no moral victories-- Barnett certainly said that more than once.  However, I believe that in NU's football history three games do indeed stand out as moral victories.  Here they are:

1924 NU at Chicago.  Chicago 3 - NU 0.
The Wildcat Game.  NU should never have been competitive in this game, but the team fought savagely to stay in it.  "Football players had not come down from Evanston: wildcats would be a name better suited to Thistlethwaite's boys," wrote the Tribune's Wallace Abbey the following day.

1924 Notre Dame at NU (home game played at Soldier Field).  Notre Dame 13 - NU 6.
This was also supposed to be a rout.  Rockne had the Four Horsemen.  But NU's Moon Baker stole the show, and NU football began its climb to dominance.

1996 Rose Bowl vs. USC.  USC 41 - NU 32.
The Rose Bowl ending to the Dream Season.  Even though a loss, this was the third of NU's three true "moral victories," and it was a spectacular game: Schnur's Rose Bowl record-setting performance, and Darnell Autry, Gowins, and Musso's heroics as NU took a (sorrowfully brief) lead in the fourth quarter.  Plus, how many bowl games' TV coverage starts with a dramatic introduction by Charlton Heston?  This is the one game in Northwestern's history where the journey was more important than the destination, and this journey boosted the program for a generation.