As the Wildcats look to play spoiler against the Fighting Irish on Saturday, we decided to revisit Northwestern’s 2014 comeback against Notre Dame by talking to some of the Northwestern players who made the upset possible. All quotes came via phone interviews from the past week.
Northwestern needed a play.
Down 40-37 and on defense with 1:36 left to play in the game at Notre Dame Stadium, cornerback Ibraheim Campbell and safety Jimmy Hall knew it was now or never for the ‘Cats.
Thankfully though, having spent the past five years together at NU as roommates and teammates, the two were ready for this kind of moment.
With the Cats down to zero timeouts and Irish ball on 2nd and 8, Notre Dame could’ve kneeled the game to under 10 seconds, all but assuring Northwestern would lose their fifth straight game and seventh overall on the season.
But Brian Kelly opted to run the ball, and so Campbell and Hall got one final chance to not only salvage the game, but salvage the Wildcats’ season.
Then, this happened:
“I remember grabbing the [Notre Dame running back’s] finger and pulling his hand away and as he’s going down, I felt his hand start to come away from the ball,” Campbell told Inside NU. “I knew it was out.”
“I think the Notre Dame guy was closer to the ball than me,” said Hall, brother of current Northwestern linebacker Nate Hall. “At that point, it was just who wants it more. It was about trying to make a big play for your team.”
“Jimmy was there to fall on it and I knew right then we put ourselves in position to win,” Campbell said.
Campbell was right.
After that forced fumble and recovery, quarterback Trevor Siemian would drive the ‘Cats down the field in less than a minute to set up a Jack Mitchell 45-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime.
You know what happened next.
Northwestern’s 2014 season had been a rollercoaster ride heading into South Bend that mid-November afternoon.
After opening that year with back-to-back home losses to Cal and Northern Illinois, Northwestern started Big Ten play strong with underdog wins over Penn State and no. 17 Wisconsin. However, that momentum was short-lived.
The ‘Cats would go on to lose their next four games heading into the Notre Dame contest. Sitting at a 3-6 overall record on the year, a loss to Notre Dame would seal Northwestern’s fate of two straight seasons without reaching bowl eligibility.
The 2014 contest was the first matchup between the two programs since the 1995 upset in South Bend that propelled the Wildcats to a Rose Bowl appearance.
Former Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater said that in the lead up to the game, the coaches didn’t talk about the storied history of the Northwestern-Notre Dame rivalry.
“The thing is, we know,” Prater said. “I knew it was a very heightened game given the circumstances and us playing them in ’95, and the history behind the game, so we definitely as a team knew what to expect going into the game as far as the publicity is concerned and as far as the media, but we knew going into it it was going to be a battle.”
In just his true freshman season with the Wildcats, as he was breaking onto the scene in the Big Ten, Justin Jackson said he recalls feeling the sheer excitement of playing at Notre Dame Stadium.
“I just remember kind of walking in, you see the statues by the stadium, snow on the stands, it was cold,” Jackson said. “The atmosphere was electric. We were playing against Notre Dame, so just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Northwestern couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.
On just the fourth play of the game, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson faked a handoff and took off 61 yards untouched for an Irish touchdown. This was one of many punches Northwestern would take throughout the game.
But every time Northwestern seemed destined for another loss in what was already a disappointing season, a ‘Cats player stepped up and made a play.
“That game was a tale of our whole season,” said current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. “Lot of ups and downs all year and that’s what that game was. We played bad at points, we played well at points and we were able to bounce back like we did throughout the whole year.”
The list of highlights from that game is endless:
- After a Notre Dame defensive touchdown in the first quarter, Nick VanHoose blocked the PAT and returned it for two points to keep the Wildcats within four.
- Early in the second quarter, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. picked off an Everett Golson pass on third down in NU territory and returned it inside the Notre Dame five to setup a Justin Jackson touchdown that put the Wildcats in front 23-20.
- Coming into the game with a previous career-long of 29 yards, Jack Mitchell would hit 4-of-5 field goals all from 30+ yards — the most he ever made in a game in his three-year career at NU. Mitchell’s 46-yarder in the fourth quarter cut the Northwestern deficit to just five.
- After Mitchell’s field goal, Ibraheim Campbell forced a fumble on 2nd & Goal and Jimmy Hall recovered the loose ball for a touchback to keep it a one possession game. This would prove to be the duo’s first of two key defensive plays of the game.
- Justin Jackson ran for 149 yards on just 23 carries — the second highest yardage he put up in any game of his true freshman season.
- Cameron Dickerson hauled in 97 yards on six catches — his biggest total yards mark in his four years at Northwestern.
- Kyle Prater hauled in ten catches for NU that day, the only double digit reception game he ever had in a purple uniform.
Northwestern needed a stop.
With 1:48 left on the clock and NU trailing the game 40-37, a Notre Dame conversion on 3rd and 9 would all but seal Northwestern’s fate.
The defense didn’t come through.
A controversial pass interference against Jimmy Hall call gave Notre Dame a fresh set of downs with 1:42 left in the game. With Pat Fitzgerald down to just a single timeout, the game seemed to be out of reach.
“After that pass interference, I just remember looking up at the crowd and thinking that I let the whole team down,” Hall said. “I thought ‘dang, I just lost this game for the whole team and the whole community.’”
Hall was wrong.
Two plays later, he would come up with the fumble recovery that would give the ‘Cats one final chance to complete the improbable come-from-behind victory — one final chance to write another improbable chapter in the Northwestern-Notre Dame rivalry.
“I knew we was gonna win [after Hall’s recovery],” Prater said. “There were just too many things happening in our favor to lose.”
But before this 2014 Northwestern team could etch an underdog road win into the program’s history books, there was still work left to be done.
Enter Jack Mitchell, who hadn’t actually been able to observe the back-and-forth action that led to him having a crucial field attempt to tie the game.
“There’s no JumboTron [at Notre Dame Stadium] so I didn’t see most of the game,” Mitchell said. “I knew we needed field goals so I had to step up. There was no other option.”
Like many others players on the team did that game, Mitchell came through when the team needed him most. He nailed both the game-tying and game-winning field goals to complete the Northwestern comeback. Both kicks were over 40 yards. Both kicks never had a doubt.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Mitchell said. “You’re in the moment. No nerves.”
The upset was complete.
When all was set and done, the Wildcats walked away from Notre Dame Stadium with what they had originally set out to accomplish. Against all odds, they had gotten the win to keep their season and their bowl hopes alive.
Although it wasn’t pretty at times, Northwestern left South Bend that night with a program-defining win — their second straight victory at one of the toughest places to play in all of college football.
“Those are the games you remember and you love,” Jimmy Hall said. “The games where everything is going right, those are great, but those aren’t the games you really look back on and cherish. There’s something to be said about maybe not playing your best but still persevering through and coming out on top.”
“That was as fun a time I’ve had playing football,” current Minnesota Viking Trevor Siemian said.
For many Northwestern players though, the real celebration came well after Mitchell’s overtime kick cleared the uprights and the team stormed the field — when the Wildcats walked up the tunnel following the game.
The true victory from that game came in the form of red and white bags filled with hot chicken sandwiches and crispy golden waffle fries.
“That Chick-fil-A was the icing on the cake,” Ibraheim Campbell said.
“It was like the coolest thing ever. It was almost weird how happy everybody was,” Siemian said.
With Saturday’s primetime matchup at Ryan Field looming large, Prater had just one request.
“I just hope Chick-fil-A’s ready for Saturday again,” Prater said. “Let’s get it ready.”