Five of those juniors and seniors start on the offensive line, which not only blocks well for Autry but has also allowed just five sacks of quarterback Steve Schnur (none by Penn State). Although the line is very solid, it continues to be stung by weekly pronouncements that it is less talented than its opposition, that it survives merely on grit and pluck. Cornerbacks Rodney Ray and Chris Martin are also seniors, and Northwestern routinely leaves them in single coverage on wideouts, which allows Fitzgerald to roam more freely. "We put them on an island all the time," said Barnett. On Saturday they held reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott to a combined eight catches for 85 yards, with no gain over 19 yards and no touchdowns.
"People like to say we're not talented," said Schnur. "It's true, we do have a great work ethic and we do believe in each other." Here he paused and smiled. "But it sure doesn't feel like we're less talented out there." There's more talent on the way. Northwestern hosted a large group of recruits for the Penn State game, and as Barnett said afterward, "Having them at a game like that can't hurt."
It is more than a little sad that all of this blossoming talent and good fortune probably will not land Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats (8-1) and No. 2 Ohio State (9-0) are both unbeaten in the Big Ten and do not play each other this year. If they finish tied for the conference title, Ohio State goes to Pasadena on the basis of a better overall record, a Big Ten rule that has been in effect since 1974. Northwestern's best shot is to win the rest of its games and hope Michigan beats Ohio State on Nov. 25 at Ann Arbor. In the meantime, Fitzgerald says, the Wildcats' mantra is, "Somewhere warm on January 1st. Somewhere warm on January 1st."
That somewhere will most likely be Orlando, where Northwestern would play a Southeastern Conference team, possibly Tennessee, in the Citrus Bowl. (Even so, the permutations of the bowl alliance and its domino sisters remain myriad.) "But I'm not worried about who we play in a bowl," said Schnur. "We've already played a lot of good teams, haven't we?"
At least three. Three that hadn't been beaten by the same team in the same fall since Michigan State did it 30 years ago.
Last Saturday night, in the John C. Nicolet Football Center next to Dyche Stadium, Northwestern coaches and players' parents milled about in small groups, replaying what had happened that day. Barnett leaned against a counter, wearing a jacket and tie, talking to his wife, Mary. In his fourth year as the Wildcats' coach, he now watches as his team grows beyond his teachings, maturing on its own.
Earlier, Barnett had begun his postgame press conference by feigning shock. "We must be pretty good," he had said, eliciting the desired laughter. Now he shook his head in amazement. "It was meant to be humorous," Barnett said. "But I am learning about them as I go along. They beat Notre Dame, they beat Michigan, and ever since then, they've faced a challenge that none of them has ever faced before. Normally this type of thing has to evolve with time, but we've just skipped first and second grades and gone right on with it."
Barnett paused as defensive backs coach Jerry Brown walked past, leaving for the night. "Great game, Jerry," Barnett said, commending the planning that contained Engram and Scott. "One hundred twenty-nine yards passing, that's it," said Brown. He was followed by George and Peggy Price of Nashville, whose son Marcel, a freshman last year, was accidentally shot and killed in July. Northwestern players wear a patch on their jerseys in tribute to Marcel, whose parents still occasionally come to Northwestern games. "Nice going, Coach," said George Price, pumping Barnett's right hand.
Many parents remained, lingering and talking and sharing the pride they all felt. "This is a special group of guys," said Barnett. "There are things you don't have to teach them, things they know how to handle. And right now, they don't want to taste losing again."
Around him the room hummed softly in quiet celebration. Restrained. Routine. Businesslike.