“Mildcats” No More, Northwestern Stuns Ninth-Ranked Irish, 17-15
By MIKE NORBUT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Coaches, players and fans alike had a list of high expectations for the 1995 Notre Dame football team.
Having to make a dramatic, last-minute comeback against Northwestern was not on the list.
Losing to the Wildcats was not even fathomed.
But, in the clash of the overachievers and the team that left its heart in the locker room, Northwestern handed Notre Dame a 17-15 loss in front of a sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.
It was Notre Dame’s first season-opening loss since Lou Holtz’s first year as head coach in 1986. It was the Wildcats’ first victory over the Irish since Ara Parseghian was Northwestern’s coach in 1962.
But it wasn’t until Notre Dame’s final time out and Northwestern’s third-and-seven conversion with a minute left to play that the game’s outcome was realized.
“I felt we were going to win the game until they got that last first down,” said Irish quarterback Ron Powlus, who finished the day 17-of-26 for 175 yards. “I just knew if we got the ball back, we were going to go down and score.”
The game’s ending kind of sneaked up on the Irish. When Darnell Autry scampered for 26 yards down the left sidelines, the Wildcats had the first down they needed. All they had to do after that was run out the clock.
“I told the players when we boarded the bus that I didn’t want to be carried off the field when we won,” Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said. “I wanted them to act like we had done this before.”
But upset victories when you’re 28-point underdogs on the road don’t happen all that often.
“We believed that we were going to win this game when we started fall camp,” Barnett said. “It’s just one of those things when you have a bunch of guys that believe in each other and are really tight.”
Those were the same intangibles that the Irish were supposed to pick up at Culver Military Academy. Instead, they came back doubtful in their own and their teammates’ abilities.
“The mental game is a big part of football,” offensive guard Ryan Leahy said. “That’s probably what we’re lacking in right now.”
The mental game was lost in the first quarter. On Notre Dame’s first drive, Randy Kinder dropped a Powlus handoff without a defender in the same area code. Wildcat linebacker Danny Sutter jumped on the gift.
“I just think that (the fumble) really hurt us mentally,” Powlus continued. “I don’t think we ever really recovered from that.”
And the spiral continued downward from there.
The Wildcats took over at midfield and pushed the ball into the end zone on seven plays. The drive culminated with a Steve Schnur 6-yard touchdown pass to Dave Beazley, who burned cornerback Allen Rossum on the play. Schnur finished the day 14-of-28 for 166 yards and two touchdowns.
After the teams traded field goals in the second quarter, Notre Dame scored when Robert Farmer powered into the end zone from five yards out. They could have gone into the locker room at halftime tied, but freshman kicker Kevin Kopka missed the point-after try wide right.
But even at halftime, there was not much doubt that the Irish could pull it out in the second half. With as much offensive firepower as the Irish have, how could anyone think otherwise?
“We told our kids since last year that if we just don’t give up the big play, if we just go toe-to-toe and cheek-to-cheek with them, we would have a chance to win,” Barnett said. “But we’ll never win the game if we give up the big play.”
Instead, the Wildcats made the big plays, including Schnur’s second touchdown pass, a 26-yard strike to D’Wayne Bates in the third quarter. And, defensively, they recorded four sacks and two stops of the Irish on fourth down.
“We just never had any consistency offensively,” Holtz said. “I think Northwestern did a good job on third downs, and we did not.”
Notre Dame was 3-of-13 on third-down conversions, and 0-for-2 on fourth down. The second fourth down failure came with less than four minutes left on the Irish 44-yard line. Randy Kinder could not get two yards up the middle, and the ball was turned over on downs.
“With hindsight being 20-20, maybe we should have punted the ball in that situation,” Holtz said. “We could have held them, forced them to punt and go from there.”
That crucial call could have been avoided had the two-point attempt been converted on Notre Dame’s final score. But, Powlus fell trying to throw to Derrick Mayes, and the play was ruled dead.
Mayes finished the day with eight catches for 94 yards. His performance was overshadowed by that of Autry, who gained 165 yards on 33 carries for the Wildcats.
When asked why they lost, many players scratched their heads in amazement. But in an attempt to halt what happened in 1994, a firm resolution was made by the team.
“We just have to go back and figure this out and correct it,” Leahy said.
“This team will learn how to win,” Powlus added. “There’s no one here who is going to say, ‘Maybe we’ll go 8-3.’ We just have to win 10 in a row.”
At: Notre Dame StadiumDate: September 2, 1995Attendance: 59,075Northwestern 7 3 7 0 - 17Notre Dame (9) 0 9 0 6 - 15NW--Beazley 6 pass from Schnur (Valerzisi kick)ND--FG Kopka 35NW--FG Valerzisi 37ND--R. Farmer 5 run (kick failed)NW--Bates 26 pass from Schnur (Valerzisi kick)N--Kinder 2 run (two-point conversion failed) NW NDFirst downs 14 20Rushes-yards 39-165 47-196Passing yards 166 175Sacked-yards lost 2-11 4-26Return yards 135 56Comp.-Att.-Int. 14-28-0 17-26-0Punts 9-36.6 7-44.6Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-2Penalties-yards 8-64 1-6Time of possession 28:17 31:43 RUSHING:Northwestern-D. Autry 33-160, A. Autry 1-5, M. Hartl 1-4, Schnur 4-minus 4.Notre Dame-R. Farmer 16-85, Kinder 12-68,Edwards 10-49, C. Stokes 2-15, Mosley 1-3,Powlus 6-minus 24.PASSING:Northwestern-Schnur 14-28-0-166.Notre Dame-Powlus 17-26-0-175.RECEIVING:Northwestern-Bates 4-58, B. Musso 2-42, Beazley 2-28, M. Hartl 2-25, D. Autry 2-8, Graham 1-3, Drexler 1-2.Notre Dame-Mayes 8-94, Edwards 4-37, Mosley 1-26, Chryplewicz 1-13, R. Farmer 1-6, Wallace 1-5, Kinder 1-minus 6.