Fourth-and-two at the Notre Dame 44. Four minutes left. Irish tailback Randy Kinder blasts into the line. And is stopped cold by a Wildcat wave that features at its crest National Honor Society member turned defensive tackle Matt Rice. "I felt I could bench-press 6,000 pounds," Rice says afterward. "The whole defense was playing with its hair on fire." End of Irish title hopes, undefeated season and so on. Start of Northwestern's strange journey into alien territory.
That first victory made three things obvious about the Wildcats:
1) They were unafraid. "There was no fear in any of us," said the 5'7", 156-pound Valenzisi, whose booming kickoffs kept the Irish pinned deep all afternoon. "Respect, yes. But no fear."
2) The Northwestern defense was something special. The defensive line, usually one of the Wildcats' weak points, was rugged and quick. The linebackers, led by human bloodhound Pat Fitzgerald, were relentless. And the secondary of Bennett, Eric Collier, Chris Martin and Rodney Ray was plainly the best in school history. Plus there was a nickelback named Hudhaifa Ismaeli who was a blitzing housewrecker.
3) Northwestern had a very special tailback. He carried the ball 33 times for 160 yards against Notre Dame and showed a dart-and-bash style akin to Emmitt Smith's. Just 19 and a theater major, the 6'1", 211-pound Autry would go on to break almost every Wildcat single-season rushing record, including those for most carries (355), most yards (1,675), most touchdowns (14) and most 100-yard games (11). He has not rushed for less than 100 yards in any of his 12 starts, dating back to the last game of 1994.
So how had he shown up in Evanston? "He had a funny running style," says Barnett. "Everybody saw him as a safety."
Except guess who.
Still, it has not been a smooth ride for Autry, who hails from Tempe, Ariz. Last spring he tried to transfer to Arizona State. He says he was lonely, cold, overwhelmed and miserable in Evanston. "I had a good life back home, and here I was out of the spotlight, an unknown, starting at ground level," says Autry. "It's fine now. But it wasn't then. It was all about becoming a man."
But it was a close shave for Barnett. When Autry asked for his release, Barnett refused to give it to him. "We'd built the whole offense around him," the coach says. "With just 85 scholarships, there has to be some kind of accountability."
"I was hot," recalls Autry. "There was friction. But I'd never yell at him. Never."