Greatest Plays Page


The Greatest Plays in NU History?
The Votes Are In!

In a format similar to the page listing NU's greatest games, presents a list of the Wildcats' greatest plays.  These plays do not necessarily come from great games, nor even from games NU won.  However, unlike the greatest games list, which takes into account games from all eras, the greatest play list focuses only on recent Wildcat history (from the 1980s to the present).  

And, unlike the greatest games list, the greatest play list came directly from reader suggestions.  During the 2003 pre-season dozens of readers sent in their lists of eye-popping plays.  I compiled the lists, ranked the plays based on your rankings and the number of respondents mentioning them, and synthesized the lists into one final countdown.  Thanks to everyone who contributed to the list.

So, here are some of the greatest moments on the gridiron during the last 20 or so years, starting with...

#1. NU at Minnesota, 2000: "Victory Right"-- One of the few moments in NU history that has its own name (actually the name of the playbook play that the Wildcats used), this particular play was mentioned by nearly every respondent, and chosen by half of them as their favorite play from the last three decades.

Having erased a 21-point deficit and tying the Gophers at 35, NU got the ball back after the Gophers executed some of the worst clock management in history.  Within his own ten yard line, with just seconds to go in regulation, Glen Mason could have called a couple of running plays and leveled the playing field in overtime.  Instead, he called for a pass, which was incomplete, stopped the clock, and -- after Randy Walker called his last timeout -- forced the Gophers to punt.  

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

#2. Michigan at NU, 1996: Gowins kicks the game winning field goal... twice-- A fairly close second was Brian Gowins' having to kick a game-winning field goal twice to give NU the shocking win over Michigan, 17 to 16 with eight seconds left.  Gowins split the uprights and the crowd erupted into celebration as NU seemed to overcome a 16-0 fourth quarter hole.  However, the refs blew the play dead, claiming that they were not ready to resume play when the ball had been snapped.  Deafening booing toward the officials gave way to nervous silence as Gowins kicked again, repeating flawlessly.

#3. Michigan at NU, 2000: A-Train Derails-- 'Cats get a jaw-dropping second chance at a win with 51 seconds to go, when Raheem Covington recovers Anthony Thomas' fumble.

#4. NU at Wisconsin, 1996: Schnur to Bates-- After Dayne's fumble (see play #9), Schnur's bomb to Bates wins the game.

#5. NU at Notre Dame, 1995: The Cryin' Irish-- Matt Rice and the Wildcat D-line stuff Randy Kinder on fourth and two with 3:57 to go.

#6. Michigan at NU, 1996: Mooooooooso!-- With NU down by two, out of field goal range, on fourth down and long, and with seconds to go, Brian Musso hauls in a Schnur throw with a circus one-handed catch, setting up the Gowins kick (see play #2).

#7. Iowa at NU, 1995: Return to Sender-- Hudhaifa Ismaeli returns a Hawkeye fumble, sprinting for the TD.

#8. Michigan St. at NU, 2001: Victory Right II-- Kustok's 40+ yard missile tipped by Patrick and caught by Jon Schweighardt, setting up Wasielewski's 49-yard game-winning field goal.

#9. NU at Wisconsin, 1996: Take a knee?  Naaah.-- Casey Dailey causes Ron Dayne to fumble while running out the clock.

#10. Michigan St. at NU, 1997: The Block-- Down by two and within easy scoring range with seconds to go, MSU's Paul Edinger has his kick blocked by Anwan Jones.

#11. NU at Illinois, 1992: Locked in a Zone-- Len Williams fires a perfect TD strike to Lee Gissendaner, erasing what was left of a 20-point deficit and giving the 'Cats the win.

#12. NU at Wisconsin, 2000: Damien's Waltz-- Concluding double overtime, Damien Anderson takes the ball into the endzone-- untouched-- from 12 yards out, stunning 76,000 Badger fans.

#13. NU at Michigan, 1995: The Trick Play-- Barnett had dozens of them, but none so satisfying as Schnur tossing a lateral to Bates, and Bates rifling a flanker-option pass to Drexler to set up Matt Hartl's score (#16).

#14. Michigan at NU, 2000: Simmons Streaks In-- Getting the ball back after Thomas' fumble (see play #3), the 'Cats didn't take long to score the winning points, as Zak fired a bullet to Sam Simmons, who raced into the endzone.

#15. NU at Wisconsin, 2000: The Long Fieldgoal-- Tim Long had had problems kicking the ball all day.  On the last play in regulation time, however, Long booted a 47-yarder to keep the 'Cats alive.

#16. NU at Michigan, 1995: Hartl Scores-- It was Schnur to fullback Matt Hartl for the winning points.

#17. Michigan at NU, 1996: The Turning Point-- Pat Fitzgerald recovers Chris Howard's fumble in the backfield in the fourth quarter.

#18. Indiana at NU, 1995: The Punt-- Paul Burton's booming punt takes a huge NU roll, totals 90 yards.

#19. NU at Notre Dame, 1995: Autry Explodes-- Darnell Autry runs up the left side for the decisive first down.

#20. Wisconsin at NU, 1995: The Scrubs Preserve the Shutout-- On the last play of the game, with the Badgers deep in the Wildcat redzone, NU has its second-stringers playing defense.  Reserve cornerback Chris Rooney stops Wisconsin for a two-yard loss.

Honorable mention-- 2002 vs. TCU: Jason Wright's 100 yard opening kickoff return for TD; 1982 vs. Michigan St.: Sandy Schwab catches a TD pass after a lateral, to secure the win; 1995 vs. Purdue: Chris Martin's long interception runback for TD;  2001 vs. Purdue: Kevin Bentley picks off Drew Brees' bubble screen for a TD; 2002 vs. Ohio State: Dominique Price's monster hit on Maurice Clarett causes his third fumble and sends him crying to the sidelines; 1995 vs. Illinois: Autry's fourth down TD; 1995 vs. Notre Dame: Ron Powlus goes down during the two-point conversion attempt.

Two Classic Great Plays
from the Forties

Although the Greatest Plays list above deals only with recent Wildcat games, there were of course just as many fantastic moments on the gridiron in any of the previous eras.  Two such plays are described in detail below.

The first comes from West Coast Cat, who writes about Don Burson's classic kick against Illinois in 1949:

I decided to do some commentary, so that you could get a flavor of what Don Burson was like. He was a great guy, and a real character, and he did get to the team reunion at the 1996 game. He had Parkinson's disease, and passed away less than a year later.


The year began in style. January 1, 1949. On that New Year's Day the Wildcats won the Rose Bowl game 20-14. The Rose Bowl is a very special event. An aura of tradition surrounds it. You can feel it when you are there. It truly is a big deal. As it turns out, this has been the Wildcat's only bowl win since they began playing football some 120 odd years ago. Thus, the win against California's Golden Bears has to be ranked as the Wildcat's all-time most important, memorable win.

Quarterback and leader of that Rose Bowl team was Don Burson. He was a junior at the time. We first met when I was a Northwestern freshman in 1952. Don had come back for a visit to the Sigma Chi house, where we were fraternity brothers. I remember that he was very colorful and confident, but also he was very down-to-earth and humble. For example, when asked what his favorite play was, he responded, "Hi diddle diddle, Burson up the middle." Yet, when we talked about the Rose Bowl game, he always gave credit to the team -"my boys" he called his teammates. He was their leader and he loved his role. Being from Ohio, he knew football, and he focused on whatever it took to win.

During my years at Northwestern, Don would come back every so often to visit his younger brother, Bob, also a Wildcat quarterback. However, we really got to know one another when we both lived in the Palm Springs area. Shortly after moving to Indian Wells in 1980, my Deru directory arrived. Upon thumbing through it, I was surprised and pleased to learn that Don Burson lived in Bermuda Dunes. He was a teacher and a coach. We got together often, played golf, and had some good times. Whenever we went to a restaurant with our wives for dinner, Don had a way of informing everyone that he was a Rose Bowl quarterback. After about 30 minutes everyone in the place felt they knew him. That was his personality and his style. He was very proud to be associated with Northwestern.

The year also ended as it had begun - with a win. November 19, 1949. Homecoming at Illinois. Homecoming has a rich tradition at Illinois, as the very first Homecoming was celebrated there in 1910. Now it is celebrated on virtually every campus nationwide. Don told this version of his last game as a Wildcat. His most amazing and memorable play came near the end of the game. It was emblematic of the leadership and raw guts of the man. It was late in the season for a Homecoming game. Also, it was rivalry week. There was a packed house of 67,872 on hand. Ron Clark rushed for 106 yards for the Illini. Tom Worthington had a 57-yard punt return for the Wildcats. But the real highlight of the game was "The Kick."

The Wildcats were having trouble moving the ball all day. Late in the game, down 7-6, the Wildcats finally got the ball inside the 10-yard line. A plunge up the middle, and an off tackle slant failed to gain much yardage. Coach Bob Voigts sent in the third down play, another plunge up the middle. No gain was the result. The fourth down play sent in from the sideline was another off tackle run. Don Burson - on his own - sensing the flow of the game, decided that was not the right call. So, in the huddle he called for a field goal with himself as the kicker. There was a 25-mile per hour wind in his face. Don had never kicked a field goal in his life. He lined up behind the holder. The snap was perfect. He got his leg into the ball, and the kick barely made it over the cross bar. But, it was good nevertheless. The Wildcats ended up winning the game. When asked, Don indicated that Coach Voigts said later that he thought it was going to be a trick play Don had improvised. That is why he did not call time out.

Thus, the 1949 football season ended in style, the same way it began, with a 9-7 Wildcat victory at Illinois. It spoiled the Illini Homecoming, and it created a legendary ending to the career of Don Burson. He was the leader of the Rose Bowl team that won the most important and most memorable game in the school's history, and, he was responsible for the Illinois win with "The Kick" - what I consider to be the greatest and guttiest play in Northwestern football history.

The other play was submitted by Far East Wildcat, and it also involved Don Burson and a trick play.  During the 1949 Rose Bowl momentum had shifted between Northwestern and California throughout the first three quarters; going into the fourth period Cal led 14-13:

California was stopped on the Northwestern 8-yard line in the fourth quarter. After an exchange of punts, Northwestern took possession at its 12-yard line with darkness setting in and the lights turned on. The Wildcats’ 165-pound right halfback Ed Tunnicliff was hit hard on a carry and dropped the ball as he fell to the ground. George Souza of California recovered. In another controversial call, the referee Jimmy Cain said that he had blown his whistle when Tunnicliff was grabbed and before the ball was dropped. The Wildcats kept possession.

Left halfback Frank Aschenbrenner completed the Wildcats' only pass of the game to Don Stonesifer at the 30 yard-line. With a run of 14 yards by fullback Gaspar Perricone, Northwestern advanced to midfield. On second down and six from the Northwestern 49-yard line, California drew a five-yard penalty for having 12 men on the field. On fourth down, Gaspar Perricone barely made the first down at the California 45-yard line. This was the Wildcats' sixth first down of the entire game. Frank Aschenbrenner gained two yards to the California 43-yard line. Less than three minutes were on the clock.

The crowd of 93,000 was on its feet.

And then it came.

The trick play had been used several times by the Wildcats during the 1948 season. "T" quarterback Don Burson faked taking the snap and tossing the ball to the left halfback Frank Aschenbrenner. Aschenbrenner, however, had already gone into motion to his right. Center Alex Sarkisian snapped the ball directly to right halfback Ed Tunnicliff, who turned the right corner.

California was caught. Tunnicliff ran 43 yards for a touchdown, untouched by a Golden Bear until about the 5-yard line. Farrar's extra point was good, and with 2:15 to go Northwestern led 20-14.