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
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
upset in NU
history (NU was a 28 point underdog) and the game that signaled the
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.
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
had not lost an opener since 1986. The details of the game are
part of NU legend, especially Gary Barnett's instructions to his
before taking the field in South Bend:
carry me off the field after we win. Act like you've done this
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
The heroes of
the day: NU's incredible defense.
[All three photos from AP]
|2. 1949 Rose Bowl vs. California
NU 20 - Cal 14
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
result produced bonfires in Fountain Square, hundreds of snake dancing
fans in downtown Chicago, and one of the great, legendary events of NU
3. 2000 Michigan at NU
NU 54 - Michigan 51
'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
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
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
on a national level. Very seriously.
The game itself was
of the best-played in Wildcat history, and sealed Barnett's reputation
a coaching power.
5. 1936 Minnesota at NU
NU 6 - Minnesota 0
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
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
Michigan seemed impossible in the fourth quarter, when sixth-ranked
Michigan had a
lead. The 'Cats had not really threatened any time in the
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
down out of field goal range, Musso made a miracle catch for 1st
Gowins executed a perfect kick which was recalled by the refs, who
ready to restart the clock. Forced to kick again, Gowins repeated
flawlessly, giving NU the win with 8 seconds left.
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.
Flatley was the call of the day, and Notre Dame dropped its 4th
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
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.
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 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
|10. 1930 Wisconsin at NU
NU 20 - Wisconsin 7
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
11. 1959 Oklahoma at NU
NU 45 - Oklahoma 13
rocked the dominant power of the day. Oklahoma had recently set
NCAA record winning streak (which still stands), and was ranked #2. NU had been on
rise for two years.
This game served as a call that NU had
to elite standing.
|12. 1896 NU at Chicago
NU 46 - Chicago 6
NU came this
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
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)
win against the highest-ranked opponent (7th AP / 6th Coaches) in
An exciting game from start to finish, and a defining
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
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
week after Notre Dame beat
Ohio State in the original "Game of the Century." The Irish were
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
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
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
two years after NU's valiant effort against Chicago in the "Wildcat
the tables had turned and NU was the dominant team in Chicago.
game dedicated Dyche Stadium, put an end to the Chicago-NU series
(Chicago's Coach Stagg, knowing his team would never again overpower
refused to schedule them again, out of pride), and secured the Big Ten
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
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
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
|24. 1931 Minnesota at NU
NU 32 - Minnesota 14
'30s win against the powerful Gophers to determine the conference
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
State was ranked #6. This win shot NU from #8 to #3 in the AP
The game included perhaps the most famous four-down goal
line stand in NU history.
Greatest Games Distribution by Decade
Games just missing the cut for the HailToPurple.com Top 25, listed from most recent to earliest:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
vs. Michigan State: Instant Classic II. First 57 minutes: a good,
defensive struggle. Last 3 minutes: some of the most
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.
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.
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
1982 vs. NIU: broke The Streak, sent the goal
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.
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
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
the show, and NU football began its climb to dominance.
1996 Rose Bowl vs.
USC. USC 41 - NU 32.
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
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.