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19 years later, Northwestern seeking to shock Irish again

11/13/2014

As all great upsets go, this one started with a pregame speech that has only grown with time.

Gary Barnett's Northwestern team was a four-touchdown underdog as it entered Notre Dame Stadium for its 1995 opener. He knew his players could have a better season than most were expecting, but he doubled-down on them before taking the field, ordering them to act like they have been there when they win.

No carrying the coach off the field. No Gatorade shower. When they win, not if.

"I was just trying to build confidence in our team," Barnett told ESPN.com. "I was telling them that we all know we're going to win, and when we do win let's not act like this is the biggest win of the century; let's just act like we're used to doing this thing, and everybody needs to get used to us doing this sort of thing, and that's the message we'll send."

Did they ever. Nostalgia has been in the air this week as the Wildcats resume their rivalry Saturday with the Irish, the schools' first meeting on the gridiron since that fateful Sept. 2 matchup 19 years ago. The 17-15 stunner that propelled Northwestern to a Big Ten title that season is arguably the greatest Wildcats victory of them all, and one of its engineers will take center stage this weekend on that same visiting sideline in South Bend, Indiana.

"Contrary maybe to popular belief, I think we think that about every game," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a linebacker on that 1995 team, said of Barnett's expectation to win. "Otherwise I don't know why you compete."

Fitzgerald recorded 11 tackles in that win, en route to the first of consecutive consensus All-America honors. An Orland Park, Illinois, native, Fitzgerald, naturally, grew up a fan of the Irish.

"I'm Catholic from the South Side -- you didn't have a choice," he cracked. "Absolutely. And then we had a great player from my high school, Jeff Alm, play. Unfortunately he's passed away, but Jeff was a great player at Notre Dame. He was an All-American. So he'd come back and work out, things of that nature, at Sandburg [High]."

How and why Fitzgerald did not end up in South Bend remains somewhat of a mystery, with the ninth-year Northwestern coach saying this week that he had attended a camp, but that he never took an official visit.

Notre Dame's loss ended up being Northwestern's gain, with Barnett just happy to land the prized linebacker regardless of how he fell into his lap.

"I think all along he wanted to go to Notre Dame and he was putting off committing to us, waiting to hear from Notre Dame, if they were going to offer him," Barnett said. "He was one of our last commitments, actually. So I'm not sure, he'll have to tell you how that all went down. And I didn't really care. We were recruiting him, we didn't care if Notre Dame turned him down or whatever. We wanted him on our football team, so we were fortunate that whatever happened, happened."

Barnett gets a kick out of how everything will have come full-circle for Fitzgerald this weekend. He recalled telling his assistants during training camp of Fitzgerald's sophomore year in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that they would be jockeying to hire Fitzgerald as an assistant if any of them ever took head coaching jobs down the line.

Ninth-ranked Notre Dame proved to be the first of several heavyweights Northwestern would take down in 1995, as the Wildcats won at No. 7 Michigan and beat No. 12 Penn State before falling to No. 17 USC in the Rose Bowl. Barnett looks at that campaign -- and, by extension, that Notre Dame game -- as the launching point for the past two decades of Northwestern football, as the program has gone from a conference bottom-feeder to one that went on to share two more Big Ten titles, and one that has reached five bowl games under Fitzgerald.

A loss at 7-2 Notre Dame on Saturday would make it consecutive seasons without a bowl for Northwestern. Still, bigger upsets have happened, as everyone from these teams' last meeting knows.

That 1995 tilt ended up being decided, in large part, on Irish quarterback Ron Powlus tripping during a two-point conversion. Two months before the game, sophomore defensive back Marcel Price was fatally shot while home in Nashville. His memory stuck with the Wildcats throughout their historic run.

"I remembered watching Powlus go back and slip, and somebody on the sideline said, 'Marcel made that tackle,'" Barnett said. "I think after we look back, it certainly is a big play. But at the time I don't recall thinking other than we just maintained our lead. That's what you're thinking at the time, and what do you do next."