Northwestern’s coach said he expected his team to beat Notre Dame. He may have been the only one who felt that way.
The Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever, stunning ninthranked Notre Dame 17-15 Saturday in the opener for both teams.
“I expected this to happen,” said coach Gary Barnett, whose team was a 28-point underdog. “It’s just got to send a message to everybody that our kids can play with anybody, and I think we just did.”
Although the Irish were coming off a mediocre 6-5-1 season, the magnitude of the upset was highlighted by the contrasting history of the schools.
Entering the season, Notre Dame had the highest winning percentage of any major school (.760), the most national championships (eight) and the most Heisman Trophy winners (seven). Northwestern, on the other hand, had the fourth-lowest winning percentage (.418) and owns the Division I-A record for most consecutive losses, 34 from 1979-82.
“I don’t think we had any respect,” said Wildcats’ running back Darnell Autry, who rushed for 160 yards on 33 carries. “We respected ourselves and I hope everyone else respects us now, too.”
Notre Dame pulled to 17-15 on a 2-yard touchdown run by Randy Kinder with 6:15 left, but failed on the two-point conversion when quarterback Ron Powlus tripped over a teammate’s foot and fell while dropping back.
The Irish had one more shot, but Kinder slipped on fourth-and-2 at his own 44 with about 4 minutes remaining and Northwestern ran out the clock.
Northwestern players celebrated on the field after breaking a 14-game losing streak to Notre Dame. Irish players and fans appeared stunned.
“We don’t ever think about losing here,” Irish coach Lou Holtz said. “They hurt; I hurt.”
It was Northwestern’s first win over Notre Dame since 1962, when future Irish coach Ara Parseghian coached the Wildcats. It also was Notre Dame’s first loss in a home opener since 1986, when Michigan won 24-23 in Holtz’s first game as Irish coach.
“Before we left the hotel, I told the players I did not want to be carried off the field,” Barnett said. “I wanted them to act like we’ve done this before.”
The Wildcats, who went 3-7-1 last season, took charge after recovering Kinder’s fumble near the 50-yard line with 11:47 to go in the first quarter. Autry’s running helped Northwestern move to the Notre Dame 7, where Steve Schnur connected with Dave Beazley for the touchdown.
Powlus, who was sacked four times and pressured throughout the game, said the early fumble brought back all the doubts from last season.
“That really hurt the team mentally,” said Powlus, who was 17 of 26 for 175 yards and no touchdowns. “Going through this experience should teach the team enough to never want to lose again.”
The Wildcats didn’t let up in the second half, sacking Powlus on the first series and forcing Notre Dame to punt. Schnur wasted no time in getting Northwestern into the end zone again, needing just three plays in 55 seconds.
After being held for no gain, Autry broke two tackles and rushed for 29 yards before stepping out of bounds at the Notre Dame 26. Schnur then hit D’Wayne Bates in the end zone and Northwestern had a 17-9 lead with 12:02 left in the third quarter.
The small group of Northwestern fans went wild, and Notre Dame seemed to deflate.
The momentum appeared to swing back to the Irish when nose guard Paul Grasmanis sacked Schnur on his own 6-yard line with about 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That forced Paul Burton to punt from his end zone, and the Irish then went on a 46-yard scoring drive that ended with Kinder’s TD run.
Although Notre Dame outgained Northwestern 371-321, the Irish couldn’t come up with the big plays. Several of their drives were stopped 1 or 2 yards short of a first down, and a point-after attempt by Kevin Kopka that would have tied the game at 10 with 2:35 to go in the first half went wide right.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s offensive line broke open big holes for Autry, and the sophomore running back managed to scratch extra yardage out of almost every play.
“I thought there were three keys coming into the game: turnovers, the kicking game and critical plays, and I thought we won all three of those,” Barnett said.
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