In the world of college football, the season seldom passes that one totally incomprehensible weekend doesn't come along and turn everything upside down. In 1958 it came in the fifth week of an otherwise unusually placid year. Upset followed upset and the mighty toppled like tenpins across the land.
Strangely enough, the most chaotic proceedings of all took place at venerable Dyche Stadium in Evans-ton, Illinois, where the ghosts of Dick Hanley, Pappy Waldorf and Otto Graham roam on autumn nights, trying to recall the glories of yesteryear. Last Saturday more glory was earned in 60 minutes of broad daylight than any Northwestern team had earned in 70 years. Led by an obviously unghostly 19-year-old sophomore named Dick Thornton, the Wildcats walked all over Michigan 55-24.
Not that Michigan is quite so mighty as it once was, but it did tie Michigan State and had lost only to Navy. Even with Fullback John Herrnstein and Quarterback Stan Noskin out with injuries, the Wolverines were favored by four points. They were lucky to escape with their lives.
Northwestern has not been doing very well lately. The only privately endowed university in the Big Ten, it is an expensive school with high entrance requirements and has had trouble attracting the right kind of muscles. In 1955 the Wildcats didn't win a game and although they managed to take four in 1956, Ara Parseghian's first year as coach, last year they hit bottom again. They lost nine straight. And this fall, when Parseghian looked around, there was hardly a familiar face in sight; only four seniors were on the entire squad. This may have been a blessing in disguise but, in any event, Northwestern was given little chance of setting the Big Ten on fire.
When they outscored Washington State in the season opener 29-28, the consensus of opinion was h'm. When they trampled toothless Stanford 20-0, people said so what. When they beat Minnesota, everyone said what do you know. Now no one knows exactly what to think.
Parseghian, a very handsome young man who came to Northwestern after a fine record at Miami of Ohio (39 victories and six losses in five years), must have wanted to win this one in the worst possible way. He installed a new unbalanced-line series in the Wildcat offense, worked up a special spread pass and drilled the kids until they were ready to drop. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Chicago correspondent, Robert Boyle, reported that in the week before the game, Parseghian constantly reminded his young team of the hoots and jeers they had drawn at Ann Arbor the year before while being humiliated by Michigan 34-14. He covered the bulletin board in the locker room with newspaper clips that dwelt heavily upon the element of luck in previous Northwestern victories this year. And Parseghian needled his team again and again with the fact that the rest of the Big Ten looked down upon the Wildcats with undisguised scorn.
"You're just the patsies from Northwestern," he would say. "Everybody rolls over you."
On the day of the game Parseghian sent Inspiration in to substitute for Scorn, who was apparently tiring by this time. He led the team through the Lord's Prayer, once in the locker room and again on the field.
On the first play Northwestern stopped Michigan cold. On the second, Michigan lost 10 yards. On the third they lost seven more. And on the fourth, slippery Halfback Ron Burton raced the Michigan punt back 17 yards to the Michigan 26. In three plays Northwestern scored. The touchdown was a pass from Dick Thornton to Burton from the new spread formation, and after that Parseghian put his spread away because he didn't need it anymore.
The game turned into a slaughter. In the second quarter Northwestern scored 34 points, and Boyle reports that at half time queries began flooding into the Dyche Stadium press box from all over the Midwest to find out what in the world was happening. The puzzled inquirers all seemed to think that every Western Union operator sending out scores from Evanston was either drunk or insane.