On the night before road games, Northwestern players and coaches always gather for a snack before heading off to bed at their headquarters hotel.
Friday night at the Sheraton Madison, coach Gary Barnett gave his players something to digest along with their milk and cookies. Each Wildcat received an envelope embossed with the Wildcat logo. Inside was a handwritten note from Barnett.
Backup tailback Adrian Autry didn’t quite know what to make of his message, which talked about being ready to pick up a rifle and carry on the battle if another soldier went down. But it was on his mind as he went to sleep.
“Handwritten letters seem to mean a little bit more to the heart,” he said. “I was kind of overcome.”
Imagine his surprise when, in the second quarter of Saturday’s 34-30 victory over Wisconsin, Northwestern’s biggest gun went out of commission. Starting tailback Darnell Autry, no relation to Adrian, felt a searing pain after taking a hit on the top of his right shoulder.
The injury was later diagnosed as a sprained shoulder; Darnell Autry will be evaluated Sunday. As he boarded the bus back to Evanston, Darnell Autry wore a sling. “It’s sore, but I’ll be OK,” he said.
Darnell Autry’s durability is something of a legend around the Wildcat football program. He carries the ball almost 30 times per game and seems to grow stronger as the game wears on.
Now he was hurt for the first time since he assumed the starting job two years ago. His streak of 100-yard games was over at 19 - he wound up with 58 yards - but the game against Wisconsin was far from finished.
“Going out at halftime, I was pretty nervous,” Adrian Autry said. “I saw Darnell coming around the corner (of the dressing room) wearing only his jersey and I was like, ‘Uh, oh.”’
Adrian Autry might have been the only person in the Wildcat traveling party who felt that way. The defending Big Ten champs have come to assume that victory will find them, one way or another. So what if their Heisman Trophy candidate was standing on the sideline with no shoulder pads on?
“Sometimes in battle your best soldiers go down early,” Barnett said. “But it’s the soldiers who pick up the rifles and go on who win the battle.”
Adrian Autry hadn’t carried many footballs this fall, let alone rifles. Through the first six games he had gained 181 yards on 53 attempts for an unimpressive 3.4 yards-per-carry average, and his longest run had been 6 yards. And he said he sometimes struggled with the mental side of sitting behind a superstar.
“Through the week of practice, sometimes it gets hard because you’re doing what everyone else is doing but you’re behind a great player,” Adrian Autry said.
Football coaches often try to keep the reserves motivated by telling them that they are one injury away from stardom. Barnett put a new spin on the cliche when he scribbled his note to Adrian Autry. “I said, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ and I trusted he was going to be ready,” Barnett said.
Adrian Autry, a junior from Loyola Academy, had spent two years in the shadow of Darnell, but now it was his time to shine. He’s a shiftier, less powerful runner than Darnell Autry, but he baffled the Badgers by rushing for 82 yards on 17 carries. He also scored on runs of two and 14 yards.
“No surprise at all,” Darnell Autry said. “This has never been a Darnell Autry show. Adrian came in and did an absolutely fabulous job. We’ve got all the talent in the world.”
But the best compliment came from Wisconsin linebacker Daryl Carter.
“I don’t really look at uniform numbers, and I kept seeing ‘Autry’ on the back of the jersey,” Carter said. “I really didn’t know (Darnell) wasn’t out there.”
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