What was most telling in Saturday's game was that the Wildcats stared down one of the giants of the conference—of the country, for that matter—in a tense defensive game that Bo Schembechler or Woody Hayes might have cherished, and in the end it was Michigan that collapsed. If beating Notre Dame had earned the Wildcats respect, then losing to Miami of Ohio two weeks later matured and hardened them for opponents like Michigan.
Northwestern had Miami beaten on Sept. 16 at Dyche until backup long snapper Larry Curry botched two field goal snaps and, in the closing minute, bounced a punt snap, leading to a Miami touchdown and a 30-28 Wildcat defeat. "[That loss] just took my breath away," says Barnett. "I remember telling my wife, 'I don't know if I can survive this.' " But decisive wins over Air Force and Indiana followed, helping to restore the Wildcats' confidence for the Michigan game.
That Northwestern was able to hold its own against Michigan in a wet, muscular Big Ten battle speaks volumes about the Wildcats' improvement under Barnett. Consider fifth-year senior center Rob Johnson, who has gained 61 pounds in five years. The Northwestern offensive line that opposed Michigan in 1992 averaged 264 pounds; this year it averages 287 pounds. "I'd spend 20 to 25 hours a week in the weight room and eat until I was sick," says Johnson.
That line now opens gaping holes for running back Darnell Autry, a sophomore from Tempe, Ariz., who went into Saturday's game averaging 166 yards rushing. Against the Wolverines he gained 103 tough yards on 26 carries. Autry has now rushed for 100 yards in each of the six games he has started, dating back to last year's season finale against Penn State. But Autry also twice tried to be released from his scholarship, first in December and then in June, because he was desperately homesick. "I felt like I was on an island," he says. "I felt like I had a good life at home, and I wanted that life back." But Autry's father, Gene, told Darnell to get back in the saddle again. "I told him, 'Darnell, you have to go back,' " Gene says. "He didn't understand the full implications of being a collegiate football player."
On Saturday, while the Wildcats' offense did a slow dance, their attacking defense unnerved Michigan quarterback Brian Griese (the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bob Griese), an inexperienced sophomore who completed just 14 of 34 attempts for 96 yards, with two interceptions, both in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Wolverine tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka rushed for 205 yards on 34 carries. "We ran the ball and did the things you have to do, but the big problem is that we did not execute in the passing game," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
Says Barnett, "We went by the rule of thumb: You defend a veteran and blitz a rookie."
The strategy worked well enough that Michigan led only 13-9 going into the fourth quarter, with all of Northwestern's points coming on three field goals by Valenzisi. The Wildcats took their first lead of the game when senior quarterback Steve Schnur threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Matt Hartl with 12:42 to play.
If Barnett is Northwestern's salesman and Autry its star, Schnur is its survivor. Last fall, when Northwestern sputtered to a 3-7-1 finish, Schnur split the quarterbacking duties with junior college transfer Tim Hughes. They were ineffective enough for the student newspaper to dub them Beavis and Butt-head. Coming out of spring drills this year, Schnur was third-string behind highly-recruited redshirt freshman Lloyd Abramson and third-year sophomore Chris Hamdorf. But Abramson left school, and Schnur beat out Hamdorf in fall camp, earning the job on toughness and leadership. He completed only 11 of 23 passes against Michigan, but his 11th won the game.
And now the Wildcats are allowed to dream even loftier dreams. The Rose Bowl? Why not? Northwestern doesn't play Ohio State, so the powerful Buckeyes, who are currently undefeated and have only Big Ten opponents remaining, must lose to give the Wildcats a shot. (If both teams finish undefeated in conference play, Ohio State goes to Pasadena by virtue of its better overall record.) Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State are still ahead on Northwestern's schedule; the Buckeyes must also face the Badgers, the Illini and the Wolverines. Says Wildcat guard Ryan Padgett wishfully, "We win the next six, and we go to the Rose Bowl." Belief is infectious, like doing the Wave on an airplane.
It was a year ago that Valenzisi wrote a paper for his Law and Ethics of Journalism class entitled "Ethical Analysis of the Associated Press College Football Poll." It was a high-minded work, drawing from Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, among others. And who could have known? One year later, look at the poll.