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The Northwestern Wildcats played USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl. It still sounds surreal, almost like one of those dreams you wake up from right as the game starts.
But it happened. Even 17 years later it’s hard to wrap your mind around a team that hadn’t been to a bowl since the 1948 season, and hadn’t been above .500 since 1971, playing in Pasadena.
But somehow, it was a reality. The Northwestern Wildcats went 10-2 that season and rose to the No. 3 spot in the Associated Press poll, becoming the greatest surprise in Chicago sports history. Darnell Autry was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, Pat Fitzgerald was the best defensive player in college football, and Gary Barnett won every meaningful coach-of-the-year award.
For some schools this happens semi-regularly. For Northwestern? Ha.
It started with a 17-15 win over big bad Notre Dame. The Wildcats, who were an encouraging 3-7-1 in 1994, were heavy underdogs, but won in South Bend with a defense that became one of the best in the country.
After a bye, the Wildcats took a 28-7 lead against Miami of Ohio. Instead of going 2-0 and protecting the new AP ranking, NU blew the lead and lost 30-28. Surely, the Cats were back to the Cats of old, and 1995 would be like every other season since the 1970s.
But then Northwestern routed Air Force and Indiana to go 3-1, though it seemed they were destined to come back to earth against No. 7 Michigan. Just as he did in the Notre Dame game, Fitzgerald led the defense alongside Matt Rice and Casey Dailey, smothering a favored Wolverines in The Big House.
By the time the Wildcats left the field in Ann Arbor they were the official Cinderella team of the 1995 season. Barnett, Autry, Fitzgerald, Steve Schnur and D’Wayne Bates were becoming stars, and the NU bandwagon was filling up.
It’s still hard to imagine this happening.
The Cats then beat Minnesota, killed Wisconsin and squeezed past Illinois. Their 21-10 win over Penn State, with Keith Jackson announcing, landed Autry on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
No longer was Northwestern just a curiosity, but a powerhouse, and maybe a contender for the Rose Bowl.
A week after dispatching Penn State, NU beat Iowa 31-20, but Fitzgerald went down for the season with a broken leg. Gone was the Cats’ best defensive player, but their momentum persisted. Sans Fitzgerald, the Wildcats beat Purdue 23-8 to finish 10-1 and 8-0 in the Big en. Eight and nothing. Undefeated. Unreal.
With their season done, the Wildcats watched Michigan beat Ohio State, giving NU the outright conference title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Just typing that now and thinking about what it meant then is making me shiver. Really. No matter that the Wildcats lost to Keyshawn Johnson and USC in the Rose Bowl, the ’95 Wildcats showed us a team from a small private school could actually contend, could turn around years of futility and change the course of a program. The ’95 Wildcats gave us new sports heroes like Autry and Fitzgerald, and others like Brian Musso, Matt Hartl and the rest.
No one ever saw it coming, and the simple joy of watching an unheralded team fell behemoth after Goliath is like nothing Chicago has seen since.