Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Bouncing back story of game, past 4 years (Jesse Abrams-Morley column)

In a locker room in State College, Pa., Randy Walker gathered his young team together. Penn State tailback Larry Johnson had just run for a then-school-record 257 yards in a 49-0 Nittany Lions thrashing of Northwestern that — if you can believe this — wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Sitting at Saturday’s post-game press conference, Walker recalled the question he asked his team that day in October 2002: “Are you going to keep taking it or are you going to do something about it?”

Two seasons later, that squad’s leaders have matured and improved. And they aren’t taking it anymore. If they beat pass-happy but hapless Hawaii on Saturday, they will take NU to its second-consecutive bowl game for only the second time in school history.

It wasn’t an immediate turnaround. NU finished the 2002 season 3-9 and started the 2003 campaign 2-4, fueling speculation Walker’s contract wouldn’t be renewed. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I was one of those fans who hoped Walker would spend last winter looking for a new job.

But his players — especially the 15 seniors who played their last game at Ryan Field on Saturday — never lost faith in him.

This year’s team has played eight games in which the winning team’s margin of victory has been nine points or fewer. So realistically, the Wildcats could be anywhere from 0-11 to 8-3. The fact that they’re closer to 8-3 is a testament to Walker’s coaching, his players’ belief in his system and their ability to make big plays when it counts.

Saturday’s win over Illinois was a microcosm of the last two seasons. The Cats got behind early, failed to play to their potential and let a less talented team stay in the game.

But with their bowl hopes slipping away, the Cats got big plays from two unlikely heroes. First, oft-injured cornerback Jeff Backes returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 21 with a little more than two minutes to go in regulation. Then in overtime, receiver Jonathan Fields, who had dropped a couple of crucial passes in the fourth quarter, made a nice sliding catch on a 7-yard touchdown toss from quarterback Brett Basanez to put NU up for good.

A cynic could easily say NU got lucky Saturday. If Illinois kicker Jason Reda hadn’t hooked a 31-yard attempt in the closing seconds of regulation, this column would be about how the Cats blew an historic opportunity.

But, as Walker is always quick to point out, lucky bounces usually balance out. Winning teams develop a confident attitude that helps them get through the good times and the bad.

“We always knew we could come back and win,” a jubilant Fields said after the game.

Of course they did. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve been through worse things than trailing a bad team by seven points in the fourth quarter.

Back in August 2001, when many of the current seniors were just starting their careers at NU, senior defensive back Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died during a summer practice.

It was a devastating loss made worse on the players by the swirl of media attention and lawsuits that ensued.

“We probably went through one of the most difficult things, tragedies, a football program could go through,” Walker said. “It rocked us to the very foundation of what we’re all about. I’ve always said, for two years I’m not sure any of us felt much like coaching or playing this game.”

I’ll leave it up to the courts to decide who deserves the blame in Wheeler’s death. And no athletic achievement will ever make up for such a senseless tragedy. But you have to admire the way Walker and his players rejected a built-in excuse for failure and chose instead to build the foundation of a winning program.

After winning his last college home game Saturday, senior defensive lineman Luis Castillo recalled the losing and doubts that dominated his first two years at NU.

“It was a rough time for us,” he said. “It was a rough time.”

Then, as he left the podium, Castillo and senior linebacker John Pickens embraced. For them, the rough times are over — and for Walker and his football program, the good times are just beginning.

Reach Jesse Abrams-Morley at

[email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Bouncing back story of game, past 4 years (Jesse Abrams-Morley column)