Eight Days of Trauma: Reliving NU’s Many Postseason Failures

Jonah Rosenblum

Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since 1949, but it’s not for lack of opportunity. The Wildcats’ Dec. 31 matchup with the Aggies will mark their ninth bowl game in the past 17 years.

Over the past 16 years, NU has lost postseason games in seven different venues: some in blowout fashion, others following devastating overtime periods. Now, the Daily takes a look at eight failed dates with destiny, before the Cats look to finally break the curse on New Year’s Eve.

1995-1996: Coming up roses

As disappointing as the final score was, it was hard to be disappointed with Northwestern following its 41-32 loss to USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats had finished with a losing record for 23 consecutive seasons, including four winless campaigns, before they went 10-2 in 1995. That magical 1995 season, later immortalized in “From Purple to Pasadena,” included remarkable upsets over Notre Dame and Michigan, and a nine-game win streak to vault NU to a Big Ten Championship. The Cats came close to winning their 10th straight in Pasadena, but star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson stood in the way, leading the Trojans with 12 catches for 216 yards. After trailing 24-7 early, NU came back to make it a 34-32 game before quarterback Steve Schnur zipped a pass a little too high. His toss was tipped to USC safety Jesse Davis, who returned it 53 yards to the house. Running back Darnell Autry performed admirably in the loss, notching 110 yards and three touchdowns.

1996-1997: Wildcats out-manned in Fitzgerald’s finale

Knowing that Dec. 31 will mark the last day in which star quarterback Dan Persa will ever don the purple and white, Northwestern is extra-motivated to win its Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas matchup with Texas A&M. You can only imagine how motivated the Wildcats were to defeat the Volunteers, then, in the 1997 Florida Citrus Bowl, Pat Fitzgerald’s final game with NU. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, quarterback Peyton Manning foreshadowed a tremendous professional career, leading Tennessee to victory with a 408-yard, four-touchdown performance. The Volunteers’ defense also excelled, holding the Wildcats to just 43 rushing yards on 28 attempts. This marked NU’s first real postseason frustration, as it came back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit, only to watch Tennessee score the next 20 points to run away with the game.

2000: Northwestern’s magical run comes to an abrupt end

Following Fitzgerald’s departure, and the exit of coach Gary Barnett, it didn’t take long for the Wildcats to make their way back into postseason play. Coach Randy Walker’s 2000 Northwestern squad emerged out of the middle of nowhere to earn a share of the Big Ten Championship and clinch a spot in the 2000 Alamo Bowl. Unfortunately, for the Cats, they were completely outmatched against a hungry Cornhuskers team, still smarting after they were left out of the BCS Bowl Championship Series. Despite Nebraska’s lofty No. 9 ranking, the game started out reasonably enough for No. 18 NU. The Cats jumped out to a 10-7 lead on a touchdown pass from Zak Kustok to Teddy Johnson. Yet, they were held off the scoreboard for much of the game’s remainder, with their only other score coming on a 65-yard touchdown run by star running back Damien Anderson. As magical as Kustok and Anderson were that season, this night would belong to Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who tossed two touchdown passes and ran for two more, and running back Dan Alexander, who ran for 240 yards and two touchdowns.

2003: Gone bowling again, Northwestern comes up with a gutter ball

If there’s one loss that probably sticks in the craw of most Wildcats‘ fans, it’s Northwestern’s stunning 28-24 loss to Bowling Green in the 2003 Motor City Bowl. As the Big Ten’s first representative in the Motor City Bowl, the Cats were given a good shot to win against their Mid-American Conference foe, even though the Falcons entered the game with a 10-2 record. Although coach Randy Walker was quoted as saying his team was a “decided underdog out there,” that didn’t stop the Cats from racing out to a 17-7 lead early in the second half, after Jason Wright broke free for a 77-yard touchdown run. Following two Bowling Green touchdowns, NU regained the lead on another run, this time a two-yard dash by Noah Herron. The Falcons took the lead for good, however, on quarterback Josh Harris’ fourth touchdown of the day, a three-yard pass to Cole Magner to give the Falcons a 28-24 advantage with just more than four minutes remaining. The Cats were unable to do anything with their final possession, losing 14 yards before punting the ball away. Wright shared co-MVP honors as a result of his 336 all-purpose yards, but the Cats were never able to show off their passing game, earning only four first downs through the air during the entire night.

2005: Sun sets on Wildcats after they blow 22-point lead

Randy Walker’s 2005 Northwestern team was never known for its defense. The Wildcats surrendered 33 points or more in six of their 12 regular-season contests that year, including a four-game stretch in which they gave up 171 points. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when NU’s defense got pummeled in a 50-38 loss to No. 17 UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl. The Bruins entered the El Paso, Texas contest with a superior record, 10-2, but it was the Cats that sprinted out to a 22-0 first-quarter lead. UCLA came back on the strength of three touchdown passes by quarterback Drew Olson. After 36 unanswered points by the Bruins, the Cats responded with a touchdown and a field goal to draw within five points. Two onside kick returns for touchdowns by Brandon Breazell, however, in the final 2:29 of the game sealed the victory for the Bruins. NU’s loss came despite dominating the first down count, 33-24, and the passing game, finishing with 416 yards through the air to UCLA’s 143.

2008: Maclin’s magic, missed extra point doom Wildcats

Following Randy Walker’s tragic death just before the start of the 2006 season, it took new head coach Pat Fitzgerald a couple of years to lead Northwestern back into postseason play. Facing a No. 23 Missouri team that thrived off the connection between 2007 Heisman candidate Chase Daniel and speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Wildcats entered the game as heavy underdogs. They ignored their underdog status, however, to hang even with the Tigers the entire way through. NU struck first on a 35-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Bacher to Eric Peterman. It appeared that the Cats would take a 10-3 lead into the half, until Maclin returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown to send the teams into the locker room tied at 10. Bacher opened up the second-half scoring with another touchdown pass, this one a 46-yarder to wide receiver Rasheed Ward, but a missed extra-point attempt by kicker Amado Villarreal would prove costly in the end. Following further back-and-forth play between the two teams, the Cats took a 23-20 lead into the fourth quarter, but Tigers kicker Jeff Wolfert tied it with a 37-yard field goal with 2:49 remaining. Wolfert could have won it too, but he missed his 44-yard attempt as time expired to give NU a chance to win it in overtime. It was Missouri who won the overtime peri
od, however, behind a seven-yard touchdown pass from Daniel to Maclin. The Cats came close on their responding drive, making it all the way to the Tigers’ eight-yard line, before a 10-yard sack stifled their momentum, and sealed the victory for Missouri.

2009-2010: Cats’ trickery falls two yards short

Pat Fitzgerald’s 2009 Northwestern team came into its Outback Bowl contest with Auburn on an absolute tear. After struggling earlier in the season, the Wildcats entered Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 7 in desperate need of a win. Despite trailing 10-0 early against No. 4 Iowa, NU came back, after knocking Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi out of the game, and forcing four turnovers in the second quarter. From there, NU won two more games to round out the season, including a majestic home win on Senior Day over No. 19 Wisconsin. The Wildcats failed to carry that momentum into their bowl game, however, quickly falling behind 21-0. After tying the score at 21, NU immediately fell back into a steep hole, trailing Auburn 35-21 with 7:32 to play. Again, the Cats came back, and even had a chance to win, as kicker Stefan Demos had a chance to end NU’s bowl drought with a 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired. He missed wide right. In overtime, the Cats again gave themselves an opportunity to win. After holding the Tigers to a field goal on defense, they escaped a near-fumble and 3rd-and-24 on offense to earn a first-and-goal at the Auburn nine-yard line. However, NU was only able to advance four yards on its first three downs, and its fake field-goal handoff to wide receiver Zeke Markshausen fell two yards short to seal the game in the Tigers‘ favor. This had to rank among the most painful losses in NU history, as the Cats had chances to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history, before blowing opportunities at the end of regulation and in overtime. In the losing effort, quarterback Mike Kafka put together one of the strangest lines of all time, passing for a school-record 532 yards, while tossing five interceptions, including one which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown.

2010-2011: Another Comeback Bid Ends in Heartbreak

In some ways, the Wildcats’ 2010-2011 bowl experience was entirely different than their 2009-2010 bowl experience. For example, in 2009-2010, Northwestern entered its Outback Bowl match with Auburn on a high, having posted three straight wins. In 2010-2011, NU was still smarting from the loss of quarterback Dan Persa, as well as two actual losses on the field: blowout defeats to Illinois and Wisconsin. In other ways, the 2011 TicketCity Bowl looked a lot like the 2010 Outback Bowl. Once again, NU fell behind early, allowing Texas Tech to jump out to a 31-9 advantage. And once again, the Cats came back, as a 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Evan Watkins to wide receiver Demetrius Fields brought NU within 38-31. After Texas Tech took a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Cats again proved a thorn in the Red Raiders’ side, drawing closer on a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Jordan Mabin. However, Texas Tech was able to run five minutes off the clock, and NU was unable to drive down the field with 25 seconds remaining, clinching the Cats’ eighth consecutive bowl loss. Considering how well the Cats played towards the end against the Red Raiders, this bowl loss was tantalizing as well. If only NU had played better in the first half, perhaps its long bowl drought would be over.

This article is the third in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as sports editor Jonah Rosenblum previews all of the Big Ten’s 2011-2012 bowl games.