By the time it was done, minutes before the thousands left in a shuffling silence, Gary Barnett's reputation had already begun to inflate and rise. This is how it happens. A football coach takes a program everyone laughs at, a school rich in money and academic reputation but simply nowhere on the map of the game. He takes Northwestern to someplace like South Bend, Ind., on the first gleaming Saturday of the season and sees something that all the experts missed. Beforehand he tells his players, "Don't carry me across the field when we win." Then he goes out and destroys Notre Dame's season.
Because, in South Bend anyway, what comes next doesn't matter now. Lou Holtz's No. 9 Irish lost to Northwestern 17-15 on Saturday, at home, but more than the possibility of a national title was squandered in that astonishing welter of miscalled plays and lost chances and quarterback Ron Powlus's tripping at the worst possible time. "We don't ever think about losing here," Holtz said. But now the Irish faithful will think all the way to December, long and hard, and no reputations will suffer more than those of Holtz and Powlus. Almost any loss would've been more palatable than this one.
"We never expected this to happen," said Powlus.
Who did? Northwestern, 27�-point underdogs, hadn't beaten Notre Dame since 1962, when future Irish legend Ara Parseghian was the coach of the Wildcats. Northwestern, 3-7-1 last year, hadn't won more than four games in a season since 1971 and had just one claim to football immortality: its infamous 34-game losing streak, a Division I-A record, set in 1982. Meanwhile, the fabled Irish, with a more experienced Powlus, a beefed-up offensive line and the usual complement of blue-chip recruits, landed in everybody's preseason top 10 and were expected to follow last season's disappointing 6-5-1 finish by becoming, well, Notre Dame again. Instead, the 59,075 congregated in the sun-washed stadium watched Holtz's team flounder about with an inept pass rush and hapless pass protection, woeful work on special teams and a curious failure of confidence—and they responded in kind. Once, Notre Dame safety LaRon Moore turned to the student body and pumped his arms furiously, urging the fans to come alive. They barely moved. They couldn't believe what they were watching.
"It's embarrassing," said split end Derrick Mayes, who returned for his senior season partly because he thought Notre Dame had a chance to win the national championship. "It's just so frustrating. No matter what we do, it seems like it's not enough."
Nobody personified that sense of inadequacy more than Powlus, the wonder boy of whom plenty has been expected and little has been realized. Powlus had a fine enough game, hitting 17 of 26 passes for 175 yards. But from the start of his college career he has been saddled with huge expectations, been called a potential multi-Heisman Trophy winner and been compared to former Irish quarterbacks Joe Montana and Rick Mirer. It may be unfair, but outsized glory and spectacular failure are the two options when you sign on with Notre Dame, and on Saturday, Powlus produced what will likely be the season's most memorable gaffe. After the Irish scored with 6:15 left in the fourth quarter to cut Northwestern's lead to 17-15, Powlus set up under center to attempt a two-point conversion. But as he back-pedaled out of the snap, Powlus tripped lamely over center Dusty Zeigler—and Notre Dame was done.
"Turnovers, a couple of bad snaps, the play where I tripped on the center's foot—those things shouldn't happen," Powlus said. "But I don't think it's the same as last year. Last year things just fell apart. This year it's just that we haven't put it together."
Or even come close. On Notre Dame's opening drive, tailback Randy Kinder fumbled the ball away at midfield; Northwestern drove for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Later Notre Dame freshman kicker Kevin Kopka missed a point-after off a low snap. Powlus was sacked four times. And even Holtz, known for his tactical acumen, wasn't immune: With the Irish trailing 17-15 and four minutes to play, the Notre Dame coach decided to go for the first down on fourth-and-two from the Irish 44-yard line. The attempt failed. "Looking back, we should have punted the ball there," Holtz says. "It was probably the logical thing to do, but sometimes everybody's talking too much on the sidelines, saying if we miss it we can still stop them and get the ball back. We should've punted the ball."
While Notre Dame spent the entire afternoon giving lessons on how to be rattled under pressure, Northwestern methodically followed a long-held plan. Barnett, 49, the fourth-year coach who earned his Division I chops under Bill McCartney at Colorado, said, "I expected this to happen." Which isn't instantly easy to believe; the last three times the two teams played, Notre Dame outscored Northwestern by a combined 111-34. But four years ago Barnett told many of these same seniors that they would beat Notre Dame this season. A superb kicking game (the Irish totaled minus-three yards on nine Wildcat punts) and only one turnover, as well as prime-time performances from tailback Darnell Autry (33 carries for 160 yards) and quarterback Steve Schnur, proved a killing combination.
"We didn't do anything special," said Schnur, who completed 14 of 28 attempts for 166 yards and two touchdowns. "We just came in here prepared to play a good football game. We weren't intimidated by them at all. We felt we had played with them last year, but they beat us in the second half. So we were determined not to let it happen again."