As Northwestern’s home opener against Michigan State approaches, many expect the team will be eager to prove that the Spartans’ upset win in 2020 was a fluke. While the ‘Cats might not be able to start from exactly where they left off in last year’s electric season, successfully redeeming themselves for that inexplicable loss against MSU would be a satisfying way to start 2021. It seems as though no matter how great a season the ‘Cats have, there is always one (oftentimes unexpected) team who has their number (read: Akron, Duke, etc). With Northwestern on a mission to avenge last year’s loss to Michigan State come September 3rd, let’s take a look back at some of the ‘Cats’ best revenge games in program history.
1995: Northwestern 17, Notre Dame 15
The way the College Football world saw Northwestern before this game is perhaps best illustrated by the Washington Post’s Nancy Armour, as she referred to NU as the “perennial Big Ten doormat.” The Fighting Irish had annihilated the ‘Cats for 14 straight contests, with the latest three romps resulting in a total score of 111-34. In its first game of the 1995 season, unranked Northwestern traveled to South Bend to face ninth-ranked Notre Dame.
Despite living up to the “doormat” nickname against the Irish in the past, Northwestern cemented itself as a force to be reckoned with that season, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in College Football History. Steve Schnur and the ‘Cats were efficient, getting on the board early in the first half for a 7-0 lead. Despite a comeback run late in the second half by the Irish, NU scraped by with a win, thanks to stellar play by sophomore running back Darnell Autry, a strong performance by the offensive line and immense defensive pressure on Notre Dame’s star quarterback Ron Powlus.
While vengeance was certainly long overdue against the Irish, whom NU had not beaten in 33 years, this game served as a wake-up call for the countless other teams and coaches who saw Northwestern as a non-threat.
1995: Northwestern 31, Iowa 20
Coach Gary Barnett made his disdain for Iowa football known, perhaps due to the Hawkeyes’ 21-game winning streak against the ‘Cats. Some of these games ended to the tune of 64-0 or 58-6, in which Iowa Coach Hayden Fry was suspected of trying to run up the score. Fry continually agitated Barnett, notably saying, “I hope we didn’t hurt any of your boys,” after Iowa destroyed Northwestern in 1992. Barnett and the Wildcats made beating Iowa a high priority, as Barnett declared that “when we beat them, we know we’ve arrived.”
On November 11th, 1995, ESPN’s College GameDay traveled to Evanston and Northwestern finally triumphed over the Hawkeyes. Despite allowing three second-quarter touchdowns, the ‘Cats clawed their way back, topping it off with a 31-yard returned fumble by Hudhaifa Ismaeli to seal the victory.
Not only did the ‘Cats finally get revenge for the 21 years of being owned by the Hawkeyes, but this victory also added some substance to Northwestern becoming one of Iowa’s greatest rivals in the 21st century.
2006: Northwestern 21, Miami (OH) 3
Hear me out on this one. For some reason, the Redhawks have continually given the ‘Cats issues, as they are 6-3 all-time vs NU. Coincidentally, future NU head coach Randy Walker was calling the plays at his alma mater when Miami handed the ‘Cats their only regular-season loss in the famed 1995 season. When Walker came to Evanston, the team’s struggles against their MAC foe continued, as they lost to them again in ‘99 and ‘03.
After Walker’s sudden death in 2006, the ‘Cats were slated to open the season in Oxford, and they came in looking to finally avenge the inexplicable loss in ‘95. It was Pat Fitzgerald’s first game as head coach of the ‘Cats, and an emotional one at that. Both teams honored Coach Walker, who had scheduled the game in 1999 when he left Ohio for Evanston.
Inexperienced quarterback Mike Kafka struggled at the outset of the contest, throwing for a measly 26 yards in the first half. However, the ‘Cats turned it around and Kafka settled in, ultimately leading the team to victory with 89 yards on 17 carries, as the Wildcats finally beat a team whom they had previously struggled against in some of their greatest years.