Greatest Games Page


Three Lists of the Best Games in
Northwestern Football History

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. 

Below I've included three lists of the greatest games NU has ever played.  The first list is mine, and 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. As noted, the HTP list puts heavy emphasis on games that led to Big Ten championships.  I have listed my top 25 and have ranked them, with #1 being the greatest game of all time.  If you disagree, let me know!  I also listed the games that just missed the cut for the top 25.

The second list is by Chicago Tribune columnist Bill Jauss, from the November 13, 1999 football program for the NU-Michigan State game.  As an end-of-the-century wrap-up,  Jauss gave his list of the 10 greatest games of the 20th century.  It is unranked and lists the games chronologically.

I do not know who wrote the third list.  It appeared in the 1982 NU football media guide.  As part of the 100th anniversary of NU's first intercollegiate football game, the athletic department gave lists of the greatest games, teams, players, coaches, and rivalries of the first 100 years of NU football.  The list below gives the athletic department's picks for the 23 greatest games from 1882-1982, also in chronological order.

The List:
The Top 25 Wildcat Games of All Time

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 outright the Big Ten title, a national #1 ranking (for three weeks), and an argument for a share of the national crown.

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.
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 in the rules of college football (NU's safety was intentional and gave the ball back to the 'Cats), and it 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.

10. 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.

11. 1930 Minnesota at NU.  NU 27 - Minnesota 6.
Win over the national power at the time paved the way to Big Ten title #3 for the Wildcats.

12. 2013 Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State.  NU 34 - Mississippi State 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.

13. 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.

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.

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

16. 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.

17. 1943 NU at Wisconsin.  NU 41 - Wisconsin 0.
Happy Homecoming, Badgers: Otto Graham ran for four TDs, threw one more TD, and kicked 3 PATs.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 2000 NU at Minnesota.  NU 41 - Minnesota 35.
"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.

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.

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 deficit by scoring an unanswered 32.

25. 1962 NU at Ohio State.  NU 18 - OSU 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.

The Moral Victories

The following three games used to be on the Top 25 list.  However, NU has reached the stage where its greatest games are wins, and wins only.  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. Honorable Mention

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

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.

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

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.

Bill Jauss' Top Ten Games of the 20th Century
Year Game Comment
1924 at Chicago
NU loss: 3-0
The flame had been lit.  Two years later NU produce a 7-1 season and a share of a Big Ten championship.
1931 vs. Minnesota
NU win: 32-14
Though leading Minn. at halftime 14-7, NU was booed by its fans.  Stung by the boos, the team outscored Minn. 19-0 in the final period.
1936 vs. Minnesota
NU win: 6-0
NU roster included: Reid, Voigts, Heap, Kovatch, Bernie Jefferson, Gargas.
1949 Rose Bowl.  vs. California 
NU win: 20-14
For sheer drama, it's hard to exceed this Rose Bowl victory.
1958 vs. Michigan
NU win: 55-24
When the score hit the wires, sports desks called the wire services and asked them to fix the "typo."
1970 at Ohio State
NU loss: 24-10
Televised back to Evanston via closed-circuit.  "[The game] did more than anything else... to bring students together for a common cause."
1992 at Illinois
NU win: 27-26
Lenny Williams: "I was locked into a zone!"
1995 at Notre Dame
NU win: 17-15
"...Pat Fitzgerald said the defining moment of the season came when tackle Matt Rice stopped Randy Kinder short of a first down on fourth and two on the Irish 44 with 3:57 to play."
1995 at Michigan
NU win: 19-13
"'Next,' said prophetic guard Ryan Padgett, 'we win the next six and go to the Rose Bowl!'"
1996 Rose Bowl. vs. USC
NU loss: 41-32
NU's Season of a Century was still one to savor for the Purple in Pasadena.

NU Athletic Department's Top Games, 1882-1982
Year Game Comment
1882 vs. Lake Forest College
NU loss: 1 g, 2 t, 2s - nothing
Northwestern's first intercollegiate game...
1896 at Chicago
NU win: 46-6
NU's first Big Ten game, against Stagg's strong Chicago team. 
1901 vs. Notre Dame
NU win: 2-0
NU scored its first victory over Notre Dame... NU's Harry Allen tackled Salmon in back of the goal line as he was attempting to punt a soggy ball for the game's only points.
1916 vs. Chicago
NU win: 10-0
Under the leadership of captain Paddy Driscoll, NU proved it could be a championship contender... It was NU's first win over the Maroons in 15 years.
1924 at Chicago
NU loss: 3-0
The Tribune's Wallace Abbey's account of the game reported that "Football players had not come down from Evanston; Wildcats would be a name better suited to Thistlethwaite's boys."
1924 vs. Notre Dame (home game at Soldier Field)
NU loss: 13-6
"It was Notre Dame's game, but Northwestern's glory."
1925 vs. Michigan (home game at Soldier Field)
NU win: 3-2
More than 75,000 fans had purchased Northwestern faced undefeated Michigan
1926 vs Chicago
NU win: 38-7
It was the last game against Chicago, because Amos Alonzo Stagg refused to schedule NU ever again.
1931 vs. Minnesota
NU win: 32-14
...Minnesota's [2nd half] opening kickoff came down in Pug Rentner's arms on the five-yard line, and Rentner did not stop until he was across the Gopher goal line.
1935 at Notre Dame
NU win: 14-7
First NU victory over Notre Dame in 34 years.
1936 vs. Minnesota
NU win: 6-0
Ended the Gopher's string of 28 consecutive wins.
1943 vs. Indiana
NU win: 14-6
Night game at Dyche Stadium.  Otto Graham & NU defeat favored Indiana.
1949 Rose Bowl.   vs. California
NU win: 20-14
"The most thrilling victory in Wildcat history."
1949 at Illinois
NU win: 9-7
Burson kicks game winning field goal.  "...It was the first time had ever attempted a field goal in four years of varsity competition."
1950 vs Illinois
NU win: 14-7
"...Knocked Illinois out of contention for the Big Ten title."
1951 vs. Army
NU win: 20-14
Highlighted by 33-yard touchdown strike to Dick Crawford.
1958 vs. Michigan
NU win: 55-24
Halftime score: 43-0.
1958 vs Ohio State
NU win: 21-0
OSU was favored to take the national championship.
1959 vs. Oklahoma
NU win: 45-13
Ended OU's 29 game winning streak.
1959 at Notre Dame
NU win: 30-24
First NU-ND match since '48.  78 yard TD pass to Irv Cross.
1962 at Ohio State
NU win: 18-14
Defending Big Ten champs stopped on downs in fourth quarter.
1962 at Indiana
NU win: 26-21
6th straight win in '62 for NU, ranked #1 in the nation.
1971 at Ohio State
NU win: 14-10
Defending champs go down as Mike Coughlin picks off last-gasp pass.

Also, don't miss the 2003 HTP poll listing NU's greatest individual plays. This list came directly from readers. Unfortunately, it is not updated.