They have 13 starters back from a team that was 10-2, won the Big Ten and finished No. 7 in the country. They have a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back, a Butkus Award candidate at linebacker and, at quarterback, a fifth-year senior who threw just five interceptions last season. So why aren't more experts picking the Wildcats to return to the Rose Bowl? "it's that Cinderella thing, I guess," says senior safety Eric Collier.
Yes, the Cinderella label continues to stick to the Wildcats eight months after their dream season ended in a hard-fought 41-32 loss to USC in Pasadena. If any other defending Big Ten champion had as many players returning as Northwestern does, it would probably be picked in the Top 10 by every prognosticator in the business; but most of the pundits have not placed the Wildcats above 15th. Why? Because Northwestern is Northwestern, which means the Wildcats will have to prove themselves all over again.
The Wildcats have one of the best running backs in the game in junior Darnell Autry, who rolled up 1,747 yards on the ground and finished fourth in Heisman voting last season. They also have senior inside linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who was Big Ten defensive player of the year, and senior quarterback Steve Schnur, who hardly ever makes a mistake. Then there's senior punter Paul Burton, who had a 90-yard boot against Indiana last year, and junior wideout D'Wayne Bates, a game-breaker with speed. Northwestern does have to plug a few holes: Junior fullback Matt Hartl was found to have Hodgkin's disease and will not play. There are two new starters on the offensive line, and the defensive secondary is inexperienced—Collier is the only returning starter.
The skeptics say that everything went right for Northwestern last year, and they are correct when they say that the Wildcats' opponents will be focused on knocking them down a peg this season. "We hear that one-year-wonder stuff, but it really doesn't bother us," says Fitzgerald, who has recovered from the broken left leg that kept him out of the Rose Bowl. "We know it's going to be a lot tougher this year. But we also know we didn't use smoke and mirrors to beat people last year."