They rushed the field last Saturday evening at Northwestern, undergraduates flowing from the bleachers under a full November moon and moving onto the plastic grass in the hollow of Dyche Stadium. It was an orderly rush, but a rush nonetheless, because they have learned how to celebrate the sweet high of an upset: You wobble the goalposts, you make silly faces while waving index fingers in the air for any soul with a minicam, and you act as if all this is very much a surprise, even though it has become ordinary.
And so the most enduring story of the fall continued, with cute naivet� still attached. In the moments after Northwestern wrapped up a 21-10 victory over Penn State, completing a spectacularly improbable hat trick that included wins at Notre Dame in September and at Michigan in October, not only did students cover the field in a human blanket, but also Cinderella references accrued like 12% interest. Question to Northwestern coach Gary Barnett: "Coach, how did it feel to coach against Joe Paterno?" And so on.
But did you see the Northwestern players? Even as the giddiness surrounded them, they treated their eighth win in nine games—a victory that moved them to No. 5 in the country—as if it were a 10-minute oil change. Presented with a chance to punch in an extra touchdown in the final 90 seconds, Northwestern instead took a knee twice, having acquired class in two months. ( Nebraska, on the other hand, has been dominant for 30 years but can't resist hanging 70 on the likes of Iowa State.) At the finish, the Wildcats ambled off the field as if this were the annual loss to Iowa. When two female fans mauled Northwestern wide receiver Brian Musso, he said, "Well, thank you," and moved on through.
That Doormat Makes Good theme is dead now. If you had laid down a parlay bet in August on Northwestern beating the Big Three on its schedule, you could now buy Delaware, but by the time the Wildcats beat Penn State, a five-point favorite, the word upset no longer should have applied. "People keep waiting for us to just break some weekend and lose 50-0," said sophomore running back Darnell Autry. "That's not going to happen."
What has happened in Evanston is more than magic and charm and serendipity, though it is partly each of those things. The Wildcats have improved every week, climbing higher in the nation's rankings and expunging their own wonderment in the process. When they beat Notre Dame on Labor Day weekend in South Bend, the Wildcats celebrated madly. They have grown calmer with each successive victory. "Actually, we're just on an emotional plateau right now," said junior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.
"This team believed in itself even before Notre Dame," said Barnett. "That win just verified it." True, said fifth-year senior center Rob Johnson. "Notre Dame was an incredible high, because nobody gave us a chance," said Johnson. "That game proved something to us; it was an awakening. But since then we've tried to keep a level head. Every Saturday we're just playing a different face and a different jersey. We're very businesslike about it."
If that concept is baffling, consider that there are concrete reasons for Northwestern's success: sound defense; depth and execution on the offensive line; a gritty quarterback with experience; and Fitzgerald and Autry, two starters who are playing as well as anybody in the country at their positions. No less an authority than Paterno, who was visibly peeved after Saturday's loss, said, "We're a good football team. Northwestern is an outstanding football team. They're my kind of football team." Translation: tough, sound, lacking stars.
Well, almost lacking stars. Last Saturday, Fitzgerald demonstrated that he is clearly one of the best linebackers in the country and that his absence from the list of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award is deplorable (memo to voters: Think write-in). Fitzgerald had 20 tackles and a sack of Penn State quarterback Wally Richardson. This season he has 123 tackles, with no fewer than 10 in any game. Fitzgerald was part of Barnett's first recruiting class, typical of the high-quality athletes now arriving in Evanston. "It's the whole difference," said Fitzgerald. "All of us bought into Coach Barnett's message [summary: No more 0-11 seasons, dream of Roses], and it shows on the field."
Autry—who scored all three Northwestern touchdowns last Saturday and, more significantly, carried the ball 36 times for 139 yards on a cold, windy day when passing was problematic—was a member of Barnett's second recruiting class. He is perhaps the best athlete in the program, the type of explosive, durable back that one would expect to find at, well, Nebraska. It was Autry who sealed this win with a 23-yard carry to the Penn State one and a touchdown run on the next play, giving the Wildcats their 21-10 lead with 11:03 to play.
When asked what it was like to block for Autry, Johnson said, "Easy." It was not easy getting Autry to come to Evanston, because he was the sort of elite recruit who wouldn't have returned phone calls from the Northwestern programs of the 1980s. "It was a coup to get him," said running backs coach John Wristen, who recruited Autry out of Tempe ( Ariz.) High in 1994, beating out Colorado in the process. Autry has rushed for a school-record 1,339 yards, majors in theater and soaks up the applause as much as his elders. "I'm enjoying this as much as any of the juniors and seniors," he said.