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Fitzgerald, Northwestern shock Notre Dame once again

11/16/2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His hair was a little thinner. The outside temperature was a lot lower. He was the one reining in his exuberant players this time around, not the one whom, he would say later Saturday, did not "have a clue" what was going on 19 years ago.

And yet after Northwestern pulled off another South Bend shocker, this one a 43-40 overtime victory that extended Notre Dame's late-season misery while resuscitating its own campaign, Pat Fitzgerald had a confession to make.

"I think it's much more enjoyable today," the ninth-year Wildcats coach said.

 He had entered the postgame press conference later than normal, the rare visiting coach who got to speak last in this building. Fitzgerald and Northwestern had waited 19 years for another shot at Notre Dame, its like-minded rival some 100 miles east. They came here in 1995 to open the season -- sun-baked, four-touchdown underdogs who would go on to do the unthinkable, recording the first of many upsets en route to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl trip.

No trophies or bowl games were clinched this time around, but a 4-6 team now finds itself in position to extend its season to a bowl game after pulling off the improbable here once again.

"[I] talked to them on Tuesday about a playoff mentality going back to high school: You get to November, the weather gets nasty, and that's when champions are crowned," Fitzgerald said. "We're not going to win a Big Ten championship, we understand that. We can still achieve our goals, but we have to have our back against the wall, playoff-type mentality and win and advance. We've advanced to another week to keep this team alive for postseason play."

Northwestern football, he said, is in a totally different place now than it was the last time these Cats took the field here. All-Americans like himself -- All-Americans who grew up on Chicago's South Side bleeding blue and gold, yet somehow ended up in Evanston -- undertook a massive culture change, one that led to three Big Ten titles, and one that now sheds the weight of a season that had been cast in a negative light.

Fitzgerald can thank himself for that, too, as the man just a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday can get Northwestern to its sixth bowl game in its past seven seasons with just two more wins, over Purdue and Illinois.

Those might look like child's play compared to what his players pulled off here on the third Saturday of November, sizing up an Irish team just a week removed from the College Football Playoff picture and delivering it another gut punch.

There was a blocked extra-point try on Notre Dame's second touchdown, which Nick VanHoose returned all the way and made what should have been a 14-7 game a 13-9 one.

There was the fallout of those Irish special-teams miscues: Coach Brian Kelly's questionable decision to go for two after the Irish's final touchdown, an incomplete pass that kept it a 40-29 Irish lead instead of putting Northwestern in a position where it would have to score two touchdowns.

Then, of course, there was the fumble -- the fourth, final and most costly Irish turnover, this from sure-handed captain Cam McDaniel, which gave Northwestern the ball back with a three-point deficit and 1 minute, 28 seconds to work with.

"They're giving us a shot, guys," Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said in the huddle. "Just let it rip."

Jack Mitchell's 45-yard field goal sent the game to overtime. His 41-yard kick -- which came after another Irish special-teams miscue, a missed 42-yard try in overtime -- set off a party nearly two decades in the making for the large contingent dressed in purple.

Said running back Justin Jackson, who could not bear to watch the game-winning kick: "First of all, that fumble was unbelievable, how we got that ball back. And then the drive, the field goal, and then for them to miss the field goal and for us to make a field goal -- it's a storybook ending to a crazy game. So it was really fun."

Fun for cornerback Matthew Harris, who was on the ledge of the stands celebrating with traveling fans long after the team had sung the alma mater. Fun for those traveling fans -- one of whom waved a purple T-shirt bearing a Chicago Sun-Times cover from 1995 that read: NU 17, ND 15. And fun for the man who had 11 tackles in that '95 meeting and sold this group on the belief that lightning could strike twice.

Fitzgerald held Siemian in a long embrace after the game. He made references to iPhones and Instagrams, luxuries and pitfalls of today's youth that will grant his players more attention than he ever received. He mentioned conversations with Ara Parseghian, the legendary former Northwestern and Notre Dame coach with whom he speaks regularly. He said boardrooms across Fortune 500 companies will feature more purple than usual Monday, as proud alumni revel in another victory at Notre Dame.

Nineteen years later, and here Fitzgerald was in a familiar position, at home once again after winning over a few more non-believers.

"I wouldn't want to play for anybody else in the country," Siemian said. "He's awesome. That's it. I just wouldn't want to play for anybody else."