Now we know miracles come with expiration dates. Now we know Northwestern's was 1/1/96. The tag teams of leprechauns, chimeras and guardian angels who had carried it along to the most unthinkable of college football seasons in 1995 finally punched out on New Year's Day.
After a mystical season of happy bounces and goose bump wins, after they had inexplicably gone from 23 straight losing seasons to 10-1 and the Big Ten championship, after waiting 47 years to return to a bowl, all the bounces went suddenly wrong, the breaks went begging, and the calls went against the Wildcats. And so a bunch of nonbelievers known as the Trojans of USC stepped on Cinderella's dress, 41-32, in an utterly unforgettable Rose Bowl.
"Well," said Northwestern's unsinkable coach, Gary Barnett, "I guess we'll have to come back next year and win it."
You did not know until the very end that the magic was drained out of Northwestern. After three-plus hours of battling USC's bigger and faster and soon-to-be-richer players, the Wildcats found themselves down by nine points with three minutes left. And yet back they came. Quarterback Steve Schnur threw a touchdown pass to a sticky-fingered wide receiver named D'Wayne Bates, but a holding penalty brought it back. Luck had never turned on Northwestern before. Now Brian Gowins set up for a 48-yard field goal try with 41 seconds left that would have given the Wildcats a ghost of a chance. It hit the left upright so full and flush that it bounced back 10 yards.
On the sidelines Barnett actually smiled. Game over. Jig up. Fun meter at zero.
It was a game that must have killed popcorn sales, since you did not dare look away. There was one tie, two lead changes and nine touchdowns, and there were incomparable performances by USC quarterback Brad Otton and fast-talking, fast-running wideout Keyshawn Johnson, with 12 catches, all of them good for first downs and for a Rose Bowl-record 216 yards, a nice little recommendation for making him the first pick in the NFL draft this April.
And yet as remarkably as Otton, Johnson and USC played, it was Northwestern that ended the Northwestern dream. With his team down 17-7 and a little more than three minutes left in the first half, Northwestern wide receiver Brian Musso was streaking near midfield when he was stripped of the ball; a USC dervish named Daylon McCutcheon scooped it up and returned it 53 yards to make it 24-7. And later, in the fourth quarter, trailing 34-32, Schnur overthrew a wide-open Matt Hartl at the USC 35 and was intercepted by Jesse Davis. That's when you knew there was no point in kissing any more frogs. All princes had taken the last flight out.
"It is hard enough to beat one opponent," Barnett groaned. "But two is too much."
Going into it, you would have hated to be USC, playing the evil stepmother to Northwestern's Cinderella. Could two more opposites have been thrown together? This was USC's 38th bowl game. It was Northwestern's second. USC has had four Heisman Trophy winners and eight national championships. Northwestern has had zero and zero. This was Northwestern's first bowl appearance in 47 years. It was USC's first in 12. Months. And yet, against all logic and odds, here it was: Bill Gates versus Uncle Morty's Toaster Repair.
It takes a lot to get noticed in L.A., but everywhere you looked tan-challenged Purple People were walking around with grins that said, Whoa! I never thought I'd be here for New Year's Day. Northwestern sold out its initial allotment of 21,000 tickets in one week. A dozen NU alums semi-swaggered into a Santa Monica restaurant looking like they had finally kicked sand in the bully's face. "Oh, yeah!" said a little bespectacled man dressed entirely in purple. "We're a football factory!"