The Northwestern/Northern Illinois football series spans seven games, dating back to 1975. For Wildcat fans of the 1980s, the matchup was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. One game triggered wild celebrations and spawned enthusiasm for NU football. The other quietly killed off hope that the program would regain competitiveness.
1982: THE STREAKBREAKER
Even younger Northwestern fans have heard tales of the 1982 NU/NIU game, known around Evanston as "The Streakbreaker". As the name implies, the game marked the end of Northwestern's infamous 34 game losing streak, which began in week three of the 1979 season. Not only were the Wildcats losing, but they were losing badly. Things bottomed out in the 1981 season, the first for rookie Head Coach Dennis Green. NU was outscored 505-82 in eleven games.
The game took place at Dyche Stadium on September 25, 1982. The Wildcats entered the game with an 0-3 record, with losses to Illinois, Indiana, and Miami of Ohio. The losing streak had reached 34 games, the Division I record at the time. The team was constantly reminded of it, and each week Green was asked when it would end. The answer would come on a cold, grey afternoon in Evanston.
Cable TV (including ESPN, which still only had one channel at the time) was in its infancy, and Internet was still many years away. 24 Hour sports talk radio had not yet begun. Despite these factors, "The Streak" had become a national story. Newspapers, magazines, and TV networks covered the game, since many recognized that NIU offered a great chance for NU to end its futility.
Back in 1982, NIU was far from being the MAC power that we know today. The program did not elevate to major college football until 1969, and it first joined the MAC in 1975 (the year of its first matchup with NU). NIU didn't have a winning season as a MAC member until 1980, when it went 7-4 under first-year coach Bill Mallory. The team fell to 3-8 in his second year, giving NU fans hope that the Huskies were the right choice to end the streak.
Northern's 1982 season began with a 9-3 loss at Toledo, followed by a home win over Kent State. They made the short trip to Evanston with a 1-1 record, hoping to notch the program's first ever win over a Big Ten school. If ever there was a time for the upstart program to beat one of the "Big Boys", this seemed like the chance to do it.
For the first time in Dennis Green's NU career, he faced an opponent that wasn't bigger, stronger, and faster. His team recognized the opportunity, and they quickly took advantage. The ‘Cats jumped to a 21-0 lead in the first half, scoring on each of its first three possessions. When they scored the first touchdown of the game, NU took its first lead since the final game of the 1980 season (vs. Wisconsin).
Freshman quarterback Sandy Schwab (son of famed stockbroker Charles Schwab) connected on his first eight passes, and collected 212 passing yards on the day. The star of the game was Senior running back Ricky Edwards, who ran for 177 yards on 29 carries. He also had four touchdowns.... exceeding the combined NU offense from the first three games combined. Edwards had a lot of help from Senior offensive tackle Chris Hinton, who would go on to be the fourth overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
NIU quarterback Tim Tyrrell scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter for the Huskies' only score of the day. NU immediately responded with an 80-yard TD run from Ricky Edwards on the first play of the next drive. NU eventually pulled away with a 31-6 win.
Mallory was very upset with his team. "Our offense stunk. Our defense stunk. We just stunk." he said to reporters after the game "but Northwestern was really hungry. They were like a pack of wolves looking for something to eat."
The mood in the NU locker room was pure joy, especially for the seniors. That senior class was part of NU's previous win over Wyoming in 1979, and had been part of all 34 losses since. "The last victory [over Wyoming] was no comparison to this one," Hinton said in the Chicago Tribune. "This is the highlight of my athletic career." (note: in addition to being drafted fourth in 1983, Hinton would go on to have seven Pro Bowl seasons in the NFL).
The victory was the first of Dennis Green's career. In the post game locker room he climbed onto a table, congratulated his jubilant team, did the team prayer, then did a swan dive off the table. The players caught Green, who was much younger and lighter at the time.
As the second half continued, Wildcat fans grew increasingly delirious. It had been three years since the last win, so most current students had literally never seen a win before. Even long time NU fans had forgotten what it's like to have a big lead.....NU had not won a game by more than ten points since 1977 (Illinois).
When the game entered the final minute, the crowd couldn't be contained...literally. Fans poured out of the stands while there were still 34 seconds left on the clock. They immediately went to the end zone to take down the goal posts. Fortunately, game officials allowed the game clock to run out, allowing long-suffering NU fans to have their day. You can see the fourth quarter and some celebration highlights.
"The main thing I remember were the gold posts coming down and people running over me... I was really scared!" remembers NU alum Kasey Crabtree, who attended the game as a student. Like hundreds of others, she ran onto the field. "I just remember being trampled by the crowd and being relieved I wasn't hurt, and remembering the goal posts going up the southern side of the stadium and over the top, dropped to the ground outside the stadium. It was insane!" Jubilant students sang the fight song outside the President's House, then deposited the goal posts into Lake Michigan (thus coining the phrase "Lake the Posts").
Attendance for the game was officially listed as 22,078. However, the euphoria of the game and its celebration have become legendary....over the subsequent decades, tens of thousands of NU fans claim to have been there. To this day it is arguably the most raucous celebration in Northwestern sports history.
THE MEDIA TOUR
As mentioned, the media world was much smaller in 1982. However, for this one college football weekend, NU was the big story. America loved NU's underdog tale, and Green had the media savvy to be a good interview (although he perfected the art of sound bites many years later). The game was the headline of the Sunday Tribune sports page, with the headline "Dream Come True!". Green became a national celebrity beyond traditional sports media. He was flown to New York to appear on both "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" that Monday morning. At "The Today Show", he was interviewed by then-host Bryant Gumbel, who had left his NBC sportscasting duties just a couple years earlier to replace Tom Brokaw.
The whirlwind tour was great exposure for the program, but reality returned the following week. NU went to Iowa City and was thrashed 45-7 by the Hawkeyes. However, in its next game, NU proved that that NIU win was no fluke....they beat Minnesota 31-21, notching the Wildcats' first Big Ten win since 1977. The 1982 Wildcats would later beat Michigan State in East Lansing, the program's first Big Ten road win since 1974. They finished the year with a 3-8 record and two Big Ten wins, providing NU fans with some optimism for the future.
NU SPORTS: A NEW HOPE
The Streakbreaker was the first of a few positive developments for the downtrodden NU Athletic Department in the early/mid 1980s. Doug Single, an energetic young AD that came from Stanford in 1981, did many things to upgrade NU Sports. Welsh-Ryan Arena got a massive upgrade during the 1982-83 season. In that same year, the men's basketball team made a memorable NIT appearance. Capital upgrades were done throughout the department, and Single invested in the then-new area of women's sports. NU scored a major coup in 1986 when former Duke basketball coach Bill Foster was hired to lead the program. Perhaps most importantly, Arnold Weber replaced Bob Strotz as University President in 1985. Strotz was widely viewed on campus as being "anti-sports" - many suspected that he had hopes of moving NU out of the Big Ten. Weber, on the other hand, came from the University of Colorado. Although not as "rah rah" as later presidents, he recognized that sports could add value to a university. Things seemed to be looking up in Evanston.
NU suffered a setback in Spring 1986 when Dennis Green departed for the NFL. After an unsuccessful attempt to hire former Browns Coach Sam Rutigliano, Defensive Coordinator Francis Peay was named Interim Head Coach for the upcoming season. At first Green's departure didn't appear to be so bad....the Wildcats showed improvement during the 1986 season, winning four games. That may not sound like much to younger NU fans, but at the time it was the Wildcats' best record in 13 years. In addition, Peay closed the season with back-to-back Big Ten wins, one over Michigan State, the second over Illinois. The victory in Champaign was the first over the Illini since 1977. The players carried Peay off the field, demanding that he get the full time job. The administration agreed....Peay was rewarded with a five year contract.
Northwestern football entered that offseason with a level of optimism not seen since the days of Mike Adamle. The program seemed to be on an upward trajectory, and many fans speculated that a bowl game was in the near future. Francis Peay was among the most respected new coaches in the nation, earning kudos from Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. Peay's intelligence and integrity made him popular among NU students during the winter and spring of 1987. In an effort to build student support, he did outreach such as fireside chats.
Northwestern players even started getting some attention. Sports Illustrated came to campus during the summer of 1987 to interview NU quarterback Mike Greenfield. Greenfield, sometimes called "Clark Kent" by coaches and teammates due to his demeanor and appearance, was photographed in a Superman costume. After many years in the wilderness, there was light at the end of the tunnel for NU football.
1987: THE ONCOMING FREIGHT TRAIN
According to the record books, the Francis Peay Era at Northwestern ended with his firing on November 25, 1991. However, NU fans of the 1980s recognize that it actually ended on September 26, 1987. That was the day that Northern Illinois handed Peay the worst loss of his career. Only it wasn't officially a loss - it was a tie.
The optimism surrounding the Wildcats was quickly tested in 1987. Duke easily handled NU in the opening game, a 31-16 victory at Durham. The game marked the college coaching debut of a notable former Heisman Trophy winner. The Duke loss was followed by another lopsided road defeat, this time to Missouri.
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The air was coming out of the tires. However, NU fans were optimistic that the home opener against the Huskies would put things on the right track. Fans and media had come to view NIU as the tonic to cure NU football. The Wildcats were 3-0 all-time against the Huskies, adding a lopsided 1985 win to the "Streakbreaker" victory in 1982. Even in the toughest of times, NU fans felt they could handle the Huskies.
The 1987 Huskies offered little to inspire hope among their fans. The program won ten games in 1983, but then saw Bill Mallory defect to Indiana. Three more losing seasons followed, including a 4-6-1 mark in 1984 under Lee Corso. (Yes, that Lee Corso.) To make matters worse, the school left the MAC after the 1985 season. The program played an independent schedule, which was highly risky and hurt the program's identity.
The Huskies entered the 1987 Northwestern game with a 1-1 record. They opened the season with a loss to Lamar, a team that went 2-9 in the Southland Conference in 1986. A road win over Western Michigan followed, setting the scene for the NU/NIU matchup. History did not favor the Huskies. They had played 12 games against Big Ten teams since 1971, and lost every single one.
EVERY DOG HAS ITS DAY
Just like the 1982 game, Northwestern scored first. NU took its first possession right down the field, with Stanley Davenport scoring on a six yard touchdown run with about ten minutes left in the first quarter. It looked like another routine Northwestern win against NIU. However, the extra point was missed due to a bad snap. That miscue was an omen for the rest of the Wildcats' day.
NIU quarterback Marshall Taylor answered the NU score with a nine yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The Huskies hit the extra point to take a 7-6 lead into halftime. That score held through the third quarter, as the Northwestern offense failed to get on track. Greenfield was held to only 90 yards passing, going 8 of 16 on the day.
With 11:19 left in the game, Northwestern kicker Ira Adler hit a 39 yard field goal to give NU a 9-6 lead. However, the lead was short-lived. The Huskies took a 13-9 lead four minutes later on a 77 yard touchdown pass from Taylor to Keith Hurley. Northwestern's offense was responded, as Greenfield ran for a 19 yard touchdown to go up 16-13. The Wildcat TD was set up by an earlier 38 yard run by Greenfield, and by a 16 yard run by Byron Sanders.
Northern Illinois took its final possession down to the NU 19 yard line, where it faced a fourth-and-ten with only six seconds left in the game. Many Huskie players wanted Head Coach Jerry Pettibone to go for the win. However, he prudently sent the field goal unit out to play for the tie (note: college overtime would not be established until 1996). John Ivancic, a walk-on kicker, delivered for his team with a 36 yard field goal. The game finished a 16-16 tie.
For Northern Illinois, it was an important accomplishment. It was the first time in 13 games against the Big Ten that they didn't lose. For Northwestern, it was a crushing defeat. The modest optimism that had grown around NU football vaporized. As Jody Homer wrote in the game article for the Chicago Tribune "That long-awaited era of renewed hope and prosperity for the Northwestern football program apparently is not yet ready to dawn over Evanston." Student skepticism over NU football turned to cynicism. The team was frustrated and disappointed. The crowd of 27,336 - considerably larger than at the game five years earlier - quietly filed out of Dyche Stadium. The goal posts were safe, and no one sang the fight song outside the President's House.
The thrill was gone from NU football, but Francis Peay still had over four years left on his contract. The team managed to get two Big Ten wins in 1987, including another win over Illinois. However, the program struggled for the rest of Peay's tenure. The lowlight was a winless season in 1989, which reminded many fans of "The Streak". However, in an ironic turn, Northwestern ended a 14 game losing streak in 1990 by thumping the Huskies 24-7 in a nationally televised game.
Both programs have gone on to much greater things since these 1980s games. Northwestern has won three Big Ten titles and been to numerous bowl games. Northern Illinois, which rejoined the MAC in 1997, has become power in that conference. They got a berth to the Orange Bowl in 2012, and have defeated numerous major conference teams over the years. Perhaps the most notable was a 2003 victory in Tuscaloosa over the Crimson Tide. However, there is one feat that NIU has yet to accomplish - despite a near miss in 2005 they have still never beaten NU.