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The 1995 season is one that will long live in Northwestern lore.
After 23 straight losing seasons, the Wildcats shocked the world by running the table in the Big Ten. That campaign started with a 17-15 road upset of No. 9 Notre Dame on this day 25 years ago.
Setting the Stage
The Wildcats had not had a winning record since 1971 as they got set to begin the 1995 season. Under fourth-year head coach Gary Barnett, Northwestern was coming off a 3-7-1 campaign in 1994. Northwestern had not won more than three games in any season since 1986.
Notre Dame was coming off a disappointing 6-5-1 season as it got set for the Sept. 2, 1995 opener. The Fighting Irish however, were just two years removed from a No. 2 national ranking and seven years removed from a national championship.
With an offense that included quarterback Ron Powlus, fullback Marc Edwards and wide receiver Derrick Mayes and a defense consisting of Renaldo Wynn, Shawn Wooden and Allen Rossum among others, Notre Dame entered South Bend as a 28-point favorite. Notre Dame would never lead in the contest.
Darnell Autry’s 160 yards accounted for about half the Northwestern offense, but both touchdowns for the Wildcats came on passes from quarterback Steve Schnur. Following a turnover, Northwestern cashed in on Schnur’s 6-yard scoring strike to Dave Beazley to draw first blood.
Northwestern would add a field goal in the first half, but led just 10-9 at the break. Notre Dame’s Robert Farmer scored a 5-yard touchdown in the second quarter, but a missed extra point would prove costly.
The Wildcats extended their lead to 17-9 when Schnur found D’Wayne Bates for a 26-yard touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. That score would hold until the final seven minutes. Notre Dame found the end zone with 6:15 to play on a 2-yard run by Randy Kinder. On the 2-point try to tie the game however, Powlus tripped on his drop-back and fell to the ground.
Notre Dame would get a much-needed stop and the ball back about a minute later. With about four minutes to play, the Fighting Irish faced a critical 4th-and-2 just shy of their own 45-yard-line. Edwards took the hand-off from Powlus but was stopped more than a yard shy of the first down. Notre Dame would never see the ball again.
Thanks to a key third down conversion strike from Schnur to Bates and a long run from Autry on 3rd-and-long, the Wildcats were able to run the clock out.
Autry accounted for more than half of Northwestern’s offense, adding eight receiving yards to his 160 yards rushing. Schnur passed for 166 yards and two scores. Bates led the Wildcats with four catches for 58 yards.
Powlus passed for 175 yards for Notre Dame in the loss. Farmer paced Notre Dame with 85 yards rushing. Mayes led all receivers with eight catches for 94 yards in the loss.
The victory served as the Wildcats’ first over a top-10 team since 1967 and first over Notre Dame since 1962. Northwestern would actually stumble the following week against Miami University, but bounced back to win its final nine regular season games and the Big Ten outright.
In their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1948, the Wildcats lost to USC, 41-32, but still finished with their highest national ranking since 1948 at No. 8. The No. 7 finish in the Coaches Poll remains their best ever. Autry would earn second-team All-American honors while linebacker Pat Fitzgerald was a Consensus All-American. Barnett was named the National Coach of the Year by most award committees.
Notre Dame would also bounce back to have a solid season. The Fighting Irish lost to Ohio State to close September, but closed the regular season on a 6-game winning streak. Notre Dame was unable to hold a 12-point fourth-quarter lead in a 31-26 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. It finished No. 11 in the final AP Poll at 9-3.
Northwestern would go on to knock off three more ranked opponents throughout the course of the 1995 season. The first and perhaps the one that got the ball rolling on a magical season came on this day a quarter-century ago.