Before the renewal of the series in 2015, the most recent Northwestern-Stanford football game took place in 1994. What unfolded that fateful day in Dyche Stadium was one of the most unique games to occur nationwide that season, finishing 41-41 and becoming one of the last draws in college football history.
“It felt a little odd to walk off the field in a tie,” remarked former Northwestern quarterback Steve Schnur as he reminisced on the sole Cardinal-Wildcats clash for which he was on the roster. “It was the only one of those that I was involved in, [and I’ve been] playing football since I was a little kid.”
The situation leading up to that fateful day in Evanston was not unlike the situation the team finds itself in at this moment, at least in one crucial regard: the all-important quarterback battle. Transfer quarterback Tim Hughes dueled it out with a returning quarterback who had limited on-field experience in Schnur. Hughes won the initial job, starting both week 1 against Notre Dame and week 2, facing the Cardinal, but his counterpart came in to relieve him in both contests.
In Bill Walsh’s Stanford Cardinal, the Wildcats had a tough early-season test ahead of them, facing off against star quarterback Steve Stenstrom (who would later go on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, among others during a journeyman NFL career). The Cardinal were favored, thanks to a high-powered offense and, partially, to the fact that their opponents hadn’t been to a bowl game in 45 years.
“There was no excuse for that. I think we were the stronger football team than Northwestern,” Walsh ended up telling the New York Times after the bizarre (and, for him, frustrating) result.
Stanford opened the scoring with a Greg Comella touchdown, before successfully attempting a two point conversion...that was immediately called back. At that point, the Cardinal opted to kick...and it was blocked. A harbinger of things to come.
For Northwestern’s offense, meanwhile, Hughes started the game 0/3, looking largely ineffective before Schnur replaced him in the third drive. Gary Barnett’s Wildcats quickly bounced back, jumping out to a 10-6 lead before Stanford responded with a controversial touchdown.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cardinal running back Michael Mitchell received a handoff from the seven-yard line but lost control of the ball near the one. Officials were delayed in making a decision, but eventually said Mitchell broke the plane before losing possession “even though TV replays showed the ball to be fumbled away before [Mitchell] reached the goal line.” The ball was recovered by Wildcat BJ Winfield in the end zone and would have resulted in a touchback.
Stanford quickly got the ball back once more, and opened the second quarter with a 7-play, 83 yard drive, capped off by a 2-yard touchdown from running back Ethan Allen. But Northwestern roared back with two straight touchdowns, a 21-yard pass by Schnur and a 13-yard run by Dennis Lundy. The Lundy run was the first play from scrimmage after a fumbled punt return. The two teams traded scores (Stenstrom and Lundy both had short touchdown runs) to close out a high-scoring half with a 31-27 Northwestern lead.
In the third quarter, Wildcat kicker Sam Valenzisi set a personal record for his longest career field goal — a 47-yarder to extend the lead to a touchdown. Quickly, Stanford drove 77 yards in 11 plays to score on an 11-yard pass.
With a little over one minute left in the third, the Wildcats got the ball back for what looked like a defining possession — they proceeded to drive 70 yards in 10 plays, with Schnur capping things off by connecting with Michael Senters to put Northwestern back up seven..
“For us, to score 41 points in those days was sort of a bigger deal,” Schnur told InsideNU. The possession after the Wildcats took the lead, Stanford drove right back down to the two yard line before three straight goal line stops created a game-defining fourth down opportunity. With all of his receivers tightly covered, Stenstrom knew the only chance to tie the game was with his feet. A two-yard keeper and the subsequent extra point left the game deadlocked with 9:48 left to play.
From there, it became a defensive struggle. Finally, in what became the last drive of the game, the Cardinal finally achieved some movement, working the ball all the way down inside the ten with the clock about to expire. But as time expired, kicker Eric Abrams missed a 23-yard (!) attempt that would have iced things.
Abrams claimed that, despite ostensibly being the man who kicked every field goal for his impressive offensive team, he was used to kicking from the left hash and struggled to adjust to the ball being on the opposite side. His kick missed wide right. “Before I kicked, I knew there was a problem. I didn’t do a good job of adjusting.” Abrams told the press postgame.
After time expired, both teams seemed unfulfilled with the outcome, with each pointing to moments in which they had the opportunity to procure a victory. “We had a definite goal to come here and win and we just didn’t accomplish that,” Stenstrom told various media outlets.
All in all, it was a series of special teams mistakes by the Cardinal, from the two-point conversion that was called back, to the ensuing blocked extra point, and eventually the missed game-winner, that proved critical in allowing the two touchdown underdog Wildcats to earn at least a tie against an impressive opponent.
Pat Fitzgerald, who had three tackles in the contest, will hope to force similar mistakes out of David Shaw, who caught two passes for twenty yards in the contest as a tight end, and his team this time around. Though neither had much of an impact on the game, their reunification as opposing head coaches for the same teams nearly exactly 25 years later is uncanny.
For the 1994 Northwestern team, though, the 41-41 tie was a highlight in a season with very few. The team ended up 3-7-1 (2-6 Big Ten) on the season, dropping their last four games and finishing eighth in the Big Ten. The NCAA changed their rules to introduce overtime for the 1995-96 bowl season, eliminating ties in college football from that point forward.
So, try as they might on Saturday, Fitzgerald and Shaw will be unable to recreate the wacky confluence of forces that allowed for the high-scoring semi-upset of 1994.