Jan. 7, 2001
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EVANSTON, Ill. -
This group of Wildcat football players knew they had a season like this in them. It was the outside world that offered up skepticism -- and plenty of it.
Need proof? Check out newspapers in the days after Northwestern's media day on August 9. There is Zak Kustok, telling people his goal is "to win the Big Ten and be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten." There is Damien Anderson's question: "why can't we go to a bowl game? The sky's the limit for us." Judging from the tone of the stories, the media saw their enthusiasm as smacking of ignorant optimism.
Still, you couldn't blame the prognosticators for their reluctance to fall for Northwestern's boasting -- it's easy to talk bowls and goals and championships when everyone is 0-0. And let's face it, the Wildcats HAD won six games combined (and just one Big Ten game) in the previous two seasons. And so as the 2000 season grew closer, people picked Northwestern as high as 10th and as low as 11th prior in the Big Ten.
Fast-forward four months. Northwestern was arguably one of the best stories in college football -- again -- finishing 8-3 during the regular season and tying for the Big Ten title with a 6-2 mark. The Wildcats won affairs against preseason Top 10 programs Wisconsin and Michigan that should be ranked among the best games this conference has ever seen. They boasted a Doak Walker Award and Heisman Trophy finalist in Anderson. And they earned a trip to San Antonio for a game in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska (a game the Huskers won, 66-17).
The Wildcats and the Cornhuskers -- the preseason No. 1 team in the land -- squaring off in a bowl game? Not even the Northwestern players themselves could not have predicted such things on that sultry August day at Ryan Field. Perhaps it is no surprise, though, that such a wacky season ended up with such a marquee matchup.
The 2000 season began with a pair of home wins that were significant only in that Northwestern showed a propensity for scoring -- one year after scoring just 141 points total, the Wildcats rolled up 35 against Northern Illinois and 38 against Duke.
That set up a potentially big game at Texas Christian against the 20th-ranked Horned Frogs and their Heisman hopeful, LaDainian Tomlinson. The Wildcats held their own against TCU, down 24-14 and in possession of the ball with seven minutes left in the fourth. But three turnovers down the stretch proved NU's undoing, as the Frogs turned them into 17 points to earn a closer-than-it-looks 41-14 win.
The next week, head coach Randy Walker instituted a theme that would reverberate throughout the rest of the season -- "Trust." He preached it early, and he preached it often: trust the system and what your coaches were coaching. Trust what your teammates could do around you. But as much as anything, trust yourself.
Talk about words becoming reality: the Wildcats opened the Big Ten season at Wisconsin's Camp Randall, facing not only a team ranked sixth in the national polls but also a stadium full of red-clad Badger fanatics.
And that is where this story really begins.
The Wildcats and the Badgers traded blows through the final eight minutes of regulation, and kept peeling themselves up off the mat. Anderson went 69 yards for a highlight-reel TD and a 24-23 NU lead. Wisconsin's Michael Bennett answered with a 55-yard scamper, and a successful two-point conversion gave UW a 31-24 lead.
Northwestern again drew level when, on fourth-and-eight, Kustok found senior Derrick Thompson on a 29-yard touchdown pass -- the first TD reception of Thompson's career.
Wisconsin looked like it had fired the final salvo when Vitaly Pitensky split a 47-yard field goal, but NU refused to die, and Tim Long answered at the very end of regulation with a 46-yarder into the wind (and the Wisconsin student section).
The teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime session, but NU got the opening it needed when Wisconsin was forced to kick a field goal with the first possession of the second OT. Enter Anderson, who capped off a 174-yard day with a 12-yard run off the left side for the game-winning points. Final score: Northwestern 47, Wisconsin 44.
If that did not wake up the nation's consciousness to this team, the next weekend certainly did. For the second straight game the Wildcats ventured into the stadium of a ranked opponent, and for the second straight game they emerged victorious. This time, though, there was no doubt as NU bounced Michigan State, 37-17, in front of a full house at Spartan Stadium. Anderson began stirring up Heisman talk with a 219-yard day (on just 25 carries), while the Wildcat defense held the Spartans to 367 yards of offense.
Ryan Field was buzzing as the Wildcats took the field against Indiana following the road wins, but nobody could have envisioned the offensive explosion NU dropped on the Hoosiers. 417 rushing yards, including 292 by Anderson, 536 yards of total offense, and seven touchdowns, four by Anderson. It all added up to a 52-33 victory.
That set up a Homecoming showdown with Purdue and its Heisman hopeful, Drew Brees. When the day was over, Kustok could certainly boast that he hung with Brees, and the numbers would back him up -- while Brees completed 22 of 40 passes for 239 yards, Kustok completed 18 of 28 for 260. However, while Kustok threw two touchdown passes, Brees completed five as the Boilermakers won, 41-28.
Northwestern had an extra week to stew on that loss, with a bye on October 21. Next on the docket was Minnesota, in a game both teams needed to win to become bowl-eligible. The scribes were already writing their contender-to-pretender stories as the Gophers piled up a 35-14 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
Thus began the next defining moment in a season full of them.
Northwestern got the ball and went 77 yards in 3:26, scoring when Kustok found Sam Simmons from 13 yards out. A defensive stop gave NU the ball again, and the 'Cats went 67 yards in 3:11 for another touchdown when Kustok ran it in from three yards out. Suddenly, it was 35-28.
After the teams traded punts, Minnesota's Jack Brewer suddenly broke free on a simple pass play and looked like he was gone for a touchdown. But here came linebacker Napoleon Harris, eating up the yards between them and finally winning the footrace. Brewer was downed at the NU 15-yard line, but Harris had miraculously forced Minnesota to "snap it one more time" -- a Walker truism. Those snaps moved the Gophers back another 12 yards, and when the Minnesota kicker missed the 43-yard field goal attempt NU was still alive.
The Wildcats went to work, advancing to Minnesota's 36-yard line before stalling on three plays which yielded negative yardage. But on fourth-and-20, Kustok found Kunle Patrick for a 34-yard gain and a first down. Sensing the wind might be out of the Gophers' sails, Kustok called his own number and ran it in from 12 yards out for a tie game. 1:24 remained in the game.
Minnesota returned the kickoff to the 7-yard line, then attempted to get in position for a final score. Instead, three plays yielded just six yards and took just 33 seconds off the clock. The Gophers were forced to punt, and NU took over on its own 47 with 41 seconds to play.
The rest, of course, is well-documented. Four plays later -- on the final play of the game -- Kustok hurled a 45-yard pass into the right side of the end zone. Patrick tipped the ball to Simmons, who caught it in the end zone. `Victory Right' gave a most improbable victory to NU, 41-35.
By now the college football world was standing up and taking notice of these Wildcats, and so ABC rolled into Evanston to broadcast to the nation the sold-out showdown with Michigan from Ryan Field. And what a battle it would be -- a game so amazing it would be replayed just 10 days later on ESPN Classic as an "Instant Classic."
The teams combined for 1,189 yards and 105 points. Northwestern broke school records with 654 yards of total offense, and had the best day any team has ever had against a Wolverine defense with 332 rushing yards. Anderson had 268 yards personally, besting the previous high against a U-M defense by a staggering 67 yards.
Michigan scored on its first four possessions to take a 28-10 lead, before Anderson scored a 7-yard TD. Tim Long pooched the ensuing kickoff over the Wolverines' first line, and it was caught by Harold Blackmon. That led to a Long field goal and it was 28-20 Michigan at the break.
Michigan spent the third quarter trying to deliver the knockout blow, but the Wildcats refused to go down and it was 45-36 entering the final 15 minutes. Kustok then started the fourth quarter with a 12-yard TD run, and it was 45-43. On the first play of U-M's next drive, Dwayne Missouri sacked Drew Henson and forced a fumble that was covered by Javiar Collins on the Wolverine 19-yard line. That led to another Long field goal -- and, amazingly, Northwestern's first lead since 7-0. Michigan once again had the answer, as Anthony Thomas -- who would have end up with 199 rushing yards on the Michigan side -- scored his third touchdown.
That set the stage for some of the most vivid images of the entire 2000 college football season.
Who can forget the euphoria of Teddy Johnson catching a 7-yard slant pass for a TD from Kustok with 1:44 to play, only to have it taken away by of all things an ineligible downfield call? Or Anderson, all alone at the edge of the end zone, awkwardly dropping a Kustok pass on fourth down on the next play?
Can you feel your spine tingle as you again visualize Thomas, seemingly gone for a game-ending Michigan TD, losing the ball as he is stripped by Sean Wieber -- or, as even Sean would say himself later on, maybe a higher power? And, as the Ryan Field caucophony grew, the feeling of inevitability as the Wildcats finally did get those winning points on an 11-yard pass from Kustok to Simmons? A two-point conversion made the margin three points, at 54-51, and a last-gasp Michigan field goal went, on this night at least, horribly awry. The battle, the war, went to Northwestern.
Perhaps the falloff at Iowa was inevitable after that. Playing in front of a vocal Kinnick Stadium crowd on Iowa's senior day, the NU offense stagnated for the first time in weeks and the result was a 27-17 loss. Still, the Wildcats got a reprieve later in the day when Michigan State upset Purdue. The Illinois game at home would be for a share of the Big Ten title.
The lesson convincingly learned from the previous weekend, the 'Cats left nothing to chance against the Illini. Anderson ran for a 21-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the game, Kustok followed with a 3-yard TD scamper four minutes later, and NU was on its way. The score would be 28-2 by halftime and eventually bulge to 47-2 in the fourth before Illinois tacked on three late TDs. Still, the 61-23 victory left no doubt -- this Northwestern team was worthy of a Big Ten title.