|Purple Pride in Pasadena/1996
Northwestern football in 1995 was the "feel good" story in sports around the country. Huge upsets. Halfback Darnell Autry (S97) on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "Expect Victory!" A steady march upward in the national polls. There was a big purple bandwagon rolling through college football that fall, and everybody wanted on.
Very few people saw it coming. Except for the coaches and players. "We talked about our goal being a trip to the Rose Bowl," says Autry. "We had a real good sense it was coming. Our goal was to do the unthinkable, to everyone but us."
The team made a statement right out of the box when it went into South Bend the first Saturday of the season and beat Notre Dame 17-15. The Chicago Sun-Times called it "the upset of the century."
Riding an emotional high for two weeks, the Wildcats came down to earth after a two-point loss at home to Miami of Ohio, coached by Randy Walker, now Northwestern's head football coach. Autry says the defeat helped ground the team. "If we hadn't lost we may never have come back down," he recalls.
Refocused, the squad went on an incredible run through its Big Ten schedule. They were unstoppable, winning eight straight games. Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald (SESP97) was named All American and the nation's top defensive player. A bowl game was assured, but it took an upset of Ohio State by Michigan in the last game of the season to send the Wildcats to Pasadena against the University of Southern California.
An estimated 50,000 Northwestern fans poured into the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 1996, including many members of the Wildcats' 1949 Rose Bowl team. Southern Cal got the upper hand early and by halftime led 24-10. But the Wildcats stormed out in the third quarter and scored the first four times they had the ball. Two minutes into the fourth quarter they held a 32-31 lead. In a wild finish that included two Northwestern turnovers, Southern Cal prevailed for a final score of 41-32.
Beaten but unbowed, the team relished its incredible season. "We all thought we did everything we could to win that game," Autry says. "I have never been so happy, so proud, to be a part of a team like that. We played not just for ourselves but for all the guys who played before us and who never made it to the Rose Bowl, who never won."