Northwestern’s greatest rivalry wins across the Big Ten and in South Bend are a mix of luck and excellent play, but all have been captivating and kept ‘Cats fans on the edge of their seat.
We created a list of some of the best rivalry victories in the past two decades based on a number of factors: rivalry strength, strength of competition, relevance of the game in context of the season, how shocking the outcome was and how exciting the game was from start to finish.
Before the season ended prematurely, the Northwestern women’s basketball team was positioned to be a real contender in the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats traveled to face the No. 15 Indiana Hoosiers back in January. The game was back and forth, but Indiana held the lead throughout the second half.
With 1:11 left to go, the ‘Cats were down 57-62, and the Hoosiers had a 97.2 percent win probability. While Northwestern was able to force overtime, the Hoosiers again had a 94.6 percent win probability with a 1:38 and went up 69-65. However, the Wildcats scored the next six points and snuck away with a two-point road win against a top 15 team.
In a February game against the feisty Nebraska Cornhuskers, the team showed similar resolve. The Wildcats were down 56-51 with three minutes left in the game and proceeded to score the last nine points and get their 22nd win.
Rivalry (4) + Importance (5) + Competition (6) + Shock Factor (8) + Watchability (6) = 29
9. Northwestern dominates Illinois (Nov. 18, 2000)
The 2000 Cardiac ‘Cats needed to keep their dreams of going to the Rose Bowl alive by beating Illinois in the Land of Lincoln game. Both teams had a series of close games that season, and Northwestern’s had been a lot more fortunate than the Illini.
The Wildcats came out hot and were up 14-0 in the first seven minutes. They had a 28-2 lead at halftime. Just like the first half, it was all ‘Cats after halftime. Damien Anderson ran for four touchdowns and the Wildcats crushed their rival 61-23.
While this isn’t Northwestern’s greatest win and isn’t considered a classic game, it was awesome to see the Wildcats dominate Illinois so decisively.
Rivalry (9) + Importance (7) + Competition (5) + Shock Factor (3) + Watchability (7) = 31
8. Wildcats escape Madison with a win (Oct. 19, 1996)
No. 14 Northwestern was determined to walk out of Madison with a victory. It was a back-and-forth battle but seemed as if Wisconsin was going to come away with another win against the Wildcats.
The Badgers had a three-point lead and the ball while Northwestern only had one timeout. Everyone expected Wisconsin would just take a knee and call it a day. Instead, head coach Barry Alvarez said he wanted running back Ron Dayne to carry the ball in order to run the clock. On the second play of that last Wisconsin series, at their own 41-yard line, Dayne bobbled a handoff and fumbled it away with 49 seconds left to play.
Two plays later, Northwestern quarterback Steve Schnur hit receiver D’Wayne Bates for a 20-yard touchdown pass, and the Wildcats somehow won the game 34-30.
Rivalry (6) + Importance (7) + Competition (5) + Shock Factor (7) + Watchability (7) = 32
T-7. The ‘Cats upset No. 18 Notre Dame in overtime (Nov. 15, 2014)
In 2014, the Wildcats and the Fighting Irish faced off for the first time in 19 years. Northwestern was 3-6 and coming off of a four-game losing streak while No. 18 Notre Dame was 7-2.
Northwestern took their first lead midway through the second quarter after a Justin Jackson run. The ‘Cats trailed Notre Dame 40-29 with just four minutes to go. Trevor Siemian ran in for a touchdown before NU got the two-point conversion to only trail by three. The Wildcats got the ball right back off of a Cam McDaniel fumble. Kicker Jack Mitchell then tied the game with a 45-yard field goal and secured the upset in overtime with another 41-yard field goal.
Mitchell nailed 4-of-5 field goal attempts on the day, including a 46-yarder, a career high. Northwestern pulled off the upset in one of the toughest environments despite already being out of bowl contention.
Rivalry (6) + Importance (4) + Competition (7) + Shock Factor (8) + Watchability (8) = 33
T-7. Northwestern outlasts No. 16 Michigan State in 3OT (Oct. 28, 2017)
Northwestern won three straight overtime games in the 2017 season, including the triple overtime thriller against No. 16 Michigan State.
The Spartans were the only remaining ranked team on Northwestern’s schedule. At 4-3, it wasn’t a must-win for the ‘Cats, but it would certainly help their resume.
A trick play gave Northwestern a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, their first of the game. Michigan State scored in the final minute to send it to overtime.
Both teams scored with ease in the first two overtimes, but after Northwestern reached the end zone in 3OT, Michigan State had their backs against the wall. The ‘Cats stripped the ball, but the quarterback recovered it and went to throw. Northwestern came down with the ball and Michigan State became the fourth highest ranked team Fitzgerald has beaten during his tenure.
Rivalry (5) + Importance (6) + Competition (7) + Shock Factor (6) + Watchability (9) = 33
T-5. Northwestern shocks No. 9 Nebraska (Nov. 5, 2011)
The 3-5 Wildcats came out of Lincoln victorious against the No. 9 Cornhuskers in their first-ever Big Ten matchup. Without their upset against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern would’ve missed out on the 2011 bowl season.
The ‘Cats struck first with an early touchdown. Northwestern’s defense was phenomenal in the first half, but the Wildcats weren’t capable of taking advantage and only held a 7-3 lead at the half.
The Wildcats’ offense took advantage of a great kick return to score early in the second half. The defense continued to stifle the Nebraska offense but their lead was trimmed to four. The ‘Cats took a 21-10 lead after Jeremy Ebert had an 81-yard touchdown catch and held onto the lead to stunned the Cornhuskers 28-25.
Kain Colter did it all for NU; he threw for 115 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 57 yards. This is Pat Fitzgerald’s second-highest ranked team he has ever beaten.
Rivalry (7) + Importance (5) + Competition (7) + Shock Factor (8) + Watchability (7) = 34
T-5. Derek Pardon hits buzzer beater against Michigan (March 1, 2017)
Northwestern’s win against Michigan in 2017 was a part of the best season in school history. The Wildcats needed a resume-builder to help them get off the NCAA tournament bubble and firmly in the field of 64. With a win, the ‘Cats would lock up their first winning record in conference play since 1968.
The No. 23 Michigan Wolverines were the perfect chance for Northwestern to show they’re for real. It was a hard fought game from start to finish. Vic Law led the way for NU with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Regulation was all but over; tied at 65 with 1.7 seconds remaining, overtime was on the horizon.
Nathan Taphorn needed to go the full length of the court and he launched the ball perfectly to the opposite end of the court where Dererk Pardon freed himself to get off an acrobatic game-winning layup at the buzzer for the Wildcats and secure Northwestern’s first-ever tournament berth.
Rivalry (5) + Importance (7) + Competition (6) + Shock Factor (9) + Watchability (7) = 34
3. Northwestern snatches victory from the jaws of the Wolverines (Nov. 11, 2000)
If you love a shootout then this might be one of the best games in Northwestern history. There were 1,189 total yards and 105 combined points in this crucial Big Ten matchup. No. 12 Michigan came to Evanston to face the No. 23 Wildcats in a grudge match.
The Wolverines came out hot and held a 28-10 lead with six minutes left in the second quarter. Michigan’s star receiver David Terrell had three touchdowns alone in the first half. On 4th-and-goal with less than two minutes to go, a Wildcat dropped a wide open pass that would’ve given them the lead.
Trying to run the clock out, Michigan fumbled the ball, setting up an 11-yard touchdown catch and run to give the Wildcats the miraculous upset victory by a score of 54-51.
Rivalry (5) + Importance (7) + Competition (7) + Shock Factor (7) + Watchability (9) = 35
2. Northwestern locks up Big Ten West title in win over Iowa (Nov. 10, 2018)
This isn’t recency bias — winning the Big Ten West and clinching their spot in the Big Ten Championship is maybe Fitzgerald’s greatest achievement during his tenure.
Iowa was ranked 21st in the nation and going into Kinnick Stadium and coming out victorious wasn’t going to be a simple task.
The first half was slow and Iowa went into the locker room with a 3-0 lead. The game’s first touchdown came in the third quarter off a 34-yard Isaiah Bowser run. Iowa answered with a play-action bomb to take a 10-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.
In the final period, Bennett Skowronek made an unbelievable catch in the corner of the end zone to put the ‘Cats back in front with a 14-10 lead. A game-sealing forced fumble by Joe Gaziano secured Northwestern’s first Big Ten West title.
Northwestern, who was projected to finish last in the Big Ten, won the West title with two weeks to go and surprised everyone. However, a different Northwestern-Iowa game is ranked number one.
Rivalry (7) + Importance (9) + Competition (6) + Shock Factor (8) + Watchability (6) = 36
1. Wildcats pull off biggest upset in Fitzgerald era (Nov. 7, 2009)
To this day, Northwestern’s win against Iowa in 2000, the eighth best team in the country, is Pat Fitzgerald’s biggest upset.
Few expected a 5-4 Northwestern team to give an undefeated Iowa squad a fight. The ‘Cats had a sloppy first quarter and went down 10-0, but then the defense stepped up, recovering a fumble for their first touchdown and forcing three other Iowa turnovers.
Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi went down with an injury in the second quarter and neither team produced much through the air.
Northwestern’s 17-10 shocker at Kinnick Stadium was Fitzgerald’s first signature win, and it was Northwestern’s first top-10 win since 2004.
Rivalry (7) + Importance (6) + Competition (9) + Shock Factor (9) + Watchability (6) = 37
Disagree with our rankings? Any games that you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below!