No one ever expected anything from Northwestern football prior to 1995.
Well okay, that’s not true. People expected Northwestern to lose every single Saturday when it took the field, often in horrific 70-0 fashion.
From 1950 to 1994 — nearly half a century — the program racked up a whopping 130 total wins, good for an average of 2.9 victories per year. Unsurprisingly, this was dead last among all 10 teams that inhabited the Big Ten throughout that 45-year period.
But as you all know, 1995 Northwestern changed everything.
A season-opening win at No. 9 Notre Dame. A perfect 8-0 conference record. The Butkus and Nagurski Award winner in linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.
And of course, a trip to Pasadena for only the second time in school history to compete in the Rose Bowl. The ‘95 ‘Cats are undeniably the greatest football team Northwestern has ever seen.
They also lost to Miami (OH) in their second game of the season.
Any die-hard fans or attendees of the university during that glorious year were already well aware of that fact, but tell that to any current student walking around Evanston in a 1995 Rose Bowl crew neck that the RedHawks were responsible for ‘95 Northwestern’s lone regular season blemish and they’d be absolutely flabbergasted.
“That game made us realize there’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Steve Schnur — quarterback and captain of the ‘95 team — told Inside NU earlier this week. “We weren’t good at winning yet. We still needed to figure that out.”
In defense of the ‘95 ‘Cats, that September loss was one of the weirder games college football has ever produced. Just looking at the quarter-by-quarter box score would tell you that something bizarre and unnatural had happened.
A 21-point fourth-quarter comeback against a team with a defense that suffocated the entirety of the Big Ten in ‘95? How exactly does that happen?
Answer — a damn long snapper injury.
“Paul Janus is our snapper, and he got hurt on the second play of the game,” said Northwestern head coach Gary Barnett after the game as he explained the loss to the media. “Larry Curry is our backup, and he had a bad day.”
Which is entirely true, as the defensive tackle turned emergency long snapper faulted on two different snaps that day, including a low snap that rolled past punter Paul Burton (uncle to the one and only Veronica Burton) and was recovered by Miami at the one-yard line with just 43 seconds left to play as the RedHawks trailed 28-27. The MAC visitors had just missed out on an opportunity to take the lead, failing on their two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown while trailing 28-21, but the miscue from Curry paved an easier path to victory, as Miami simply ran the clock down to its final seconds before kicking a 20-yard field goal as time expired.
Curry’s final snap (along with an early fourth-quarter field goal snap that instead became a 17-yard loss) might have sealed NU’s fate that day, but his insertion into a vital special teams role was only one of many strange phenomena that struck Northwestern that day.
For example, instead of cruising into halftime with a secure 21-0 lead, the ‘Cats let Miami on the board via a blocked punt touchdown with just under two minutes left in the second quarter, giving the visitors life. That 23-point fourth-quarter surge? It was led by Sam Ricketts, a backup quarterback seeing his first real action of the season after long-time Miami starter Neil Dougherty got injured in the first half. That was a quality RedHawks team, one that finished 8-2-1 and was led on offense by soon-to-be Northwestern great Randy Walker as head coach, and a promising young offensive coordinator by the name of Sean Payton. But still, there’s no way to look back at that game and be anything but utterly confused as to how Northwestern lost it.
“It felt like you were stuck in a whirlpool and you were going down and there was nothing you could do about it,” Schnur told INU. “The offense should have gotten more first downs. The defense could have stopped have kept them from scoring. Yeah, we kept missing snaps on punts, but there were a lot of things that went wrong in that game.”
The Chicago Tribune headline the following day read, “BACK TO REALITY: MIAMI OF OHIO 30, NORTHWESTERN 28.” It reiterated what all NU fans were thinking at the time — that the win over Notre Dame was nothing but a fluke, and would be a mere funny footnote in another 3-9 ‘Cats’ season.
But that’s where the ‘95 team separated itself. They weren’t okay with business as usual.
“Guys on the team weren’t mad at each other, they were mad at the squandered opportunity,” said Schnur, describing the mood in the locker room following the loss. “We were ticked off after that game and swore that it wouldn’t happen again. And it didn’t.”
And what an on-ramp it was. Following that loss, the ‘Cats ran through every big team on their schedule. Despite allowing 30 points to Miami, Northwestern surrendered no more than 20 points in any of its next nine regular season games, becoming a national darling of a team and rising up the ranks in the process.
“His whole slogan — Expect Victory — was all about changing the culture, not just changing the football team,” Schnur told INU. “The expectations [that Northwestern fans have now] didn’t exist back when I went there. That year in ‘95, I think we were underdogs in damn near all of our games.”
“That’s why Coach Barnett should go down as one of the greatest ever when it comes to changing a program, because not just in football, but in everything, that’s really hard to do.”
The 1995 squad set an example for Northwestern teams to come in more ways than one. Their success made people take Wildcat football seriously on a national level for the first time in decades, and in the near three decades that have followed, every college football fan expects Northwestern to be a Big Ten team capable of pulling off major upsets and even potentially sneaking into the championship game. But local fans also expect an inexplicable non-conference loss from the ‘Cats even in their best seasons.
The 2018 team that swept the West lost by 11 points to a Terry Bowden-coached Akron team (somehow even worse than usual Akron). The 2016 edition of the Wildcats fell 9-7 to Illinois State only to later drop scores of 54, 45 and 42 points on Big Ten opponents en route to a winning season. Heck, we’re not even through September yet and the 2022 season already includes losses to Duke and a B-A-D FCS team.
The 1995 season was everything that any Northwestern football fan to that point could have ever asked for, and if you had told a Wildcat supporter at that time that 30 years of consistent success was in their future, they would have collapsed and wept tears of joy.
And though it’s tempting to ask what might have been had Northwestern held on against Miami — as the ‘Cats ranked No. 3 in the nation entering the Rose Bowl, and *potentially* could have been playing for a share of the ‘95 title had they then beaten USC and had some truly deranged voters put them ahead of likely the greatest CFB team ever in ‘95 Nebraska — there's also a timeline that exists where NU wins against the RedHawks but stumbles in Big Ten play, robbing the purple and white of the Rose Bowl trip.
Northwestern was a ghastly 8-24-1 in Barnett’s three years prior to ‘95. This wasn’t a program building on years of increasing success, it was a historic team that shocked everyone with their immediate rise to prominence. That loss to Miami was a reminder to them of what they had been before that year, and more importantly, how much work and focus was still needed to change the entire Northwestern football program on its head with their success that year.
“If we had squeaked out a win [against Miami], I’m not sure we would have learned the lesson we needed. I’m not sure we would have won all those games,” Schnur told INU. “We sure knew what it was like to lose. All we had done is lose to that point. It was a very hard pill to swallow, but sometimes the best lessons in life have to come in hardship.”
That loss was a shocking disappointment, as would another defeat to Miami this Saturday for the Wildcats, but the fact that Northwestern over this new millennium has achieved enough success for fans and national media to be disappointed in it is a huge success coming from where the program was just 40 years ago.
Anything is possible when Northwestern and Miami (OH) play. It’s one of college football’s strangest symbiotic relationships, and this Saturday we all get to see its glorious 10th installment.