Football: The 9 most memorable season openers in Northwestern history

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Northwestern Archives / Associated Press

Rodney Ray (left) and Steve Schnur (right) celebrate Northwestern’s upset of Notre Dame in 1995. The Wildcats won 17-15.

Peter Warren, Reporter


Football


Saturday was supposed to be Northwestern’s season opening game — at Michigan State in the original schedule and at Penn State in the modified schedule. While there will be no Wildcats game to watch, there are more than 130 season openers to look back on and enjoy. From upset victories to high-scoring thrillers to even an ugly 0-0 tie, here are nine of the most memorable season openers in NU history.

9. Northwestern 0, Illinois 0 at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 9, 1978

Northwestern and Illinois were projected as the two worst teams in the Big Ten heading into the game. The Fighting Illini were in the midst of a 15-year stretch with only one winning record, while Northwestern was coming off a 1-10 season and was about to start a four-year stretch when they lost every game but two. One of those games was a 27-22 win over Wyoming in 1979. The other was this 0-0 season opening tie against Illinois in Champaign. The game was awful. The temperature hit 116 degrees about 30 minutes before tip and Illinois was in the red zone five times and didn’t score — even after driving all the way to the 2-yard line on one possession. It’s a game that is so memorable because it is forgettable.

8. Northwestern 10, Northwestern Alumni 6 at Northwestern Field on Oct. 10, 1908

Most of NU’s season openers in its earlier years were more like exhibitions than grand openings to a college season — the Cats opened against ETHS five times between 1889 and 1905. The 1908 opener against a Northwestern Alumni team fits in that same category, but is different in one regard: it was the first football game NU had played in over 33 months. The University had cut the football program in 1906 due to fears about player safety. But the team was reinstated in 1908, and this matchup is counted by the program as its first official game after the two-year absence.

7. TCU 48, Northwestern 45 at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Sept. 2, 2004

The only NU loss on this list, the 2004 opener at TCU was chaos at best. The game went to double overtime, each team scored six touchdowns, there were only six total punts and the Cats came back from deficits three different times. Playing on a Thursday night in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs went up 45-38 with three minutes to go. But Brett Basanez drove the Cats down the field to tie the game with 13 seconds left on a short eight-yard touchdown pass to Shaun Herbert. Basanez was prolific: 39-for-62, 513 yards, four touchdowns — including one with 13 seconds left to tie the game. Kicker Brian Huffman — who missed five field goals, including two in overtime — was not.

6. Northwestern 51, Kansas State 3 at Dyche Stadium on Oct. 4, 1941

Yes, this game was a blowout and was never close. NU outrushed Kansas State 394-33, out-passed them 132-0 and out-returned them 203-11. But it marked the first collegiate game in the career of Otto Graham, considered by many to be the greatest football player to ever suit up for the Cats. And like Nas with Illmatic, a future legend started his career with an absolute classic. Graham scored three touchdowns and passed for another. The highlight of the game was his magnificent 90-yard punt return in the third quarter. Bill deCorrevont, one of the most hyped recruits to ever play for the Purple, also scored two touchdowns.

5. Northwestern 29, No. 10 Washington State 28 at Dyche Stadium on Sept. 27, 1958

NU did not win a game in 1957, finishing 0-9 and being outscored by 214 points on the year. So when Washington State — led by 1957’s most efficient passer Bob Newman and coming off a 40-6 thrashing of Stanford the week before — flew into Evanston for NU’s season opener in 1958, the Cougars were heavy favorites. But the Cats scored two quick touchdowns at the end of the first half to go up 14-0 at the half. Two more touchdowns in the second half including a 61-yard dash by Ron Burton, gave NU a 29-6 lead in the fourth. Washington State did not go down without a fight, scoring three consecutive touchdowns, but a historic comeback was not in the cards.

4. Northwestern 12, No. 8 Miami 7 at Dyche Stadium on Sept. 23, 1967

Before Miami arrived in Evanston to open the 1967 season, Chicago Tribune’s George Langford wrote that Northwestern was “pictured by the pre-season seers as warriors going into battle with pie plates for armor and whipped cream ammunition.” And despite losing 15 starters from the previous season, NU sprung the upset in a thrilling game. The defining moment came with NU down 7-6 and on the Miami 9 with only a few minutes left in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Bill Melzer handed the ball off to Chico Kurzawski, who then passed it back to Melzer — who had slid to the flat. Melzer galloped into the endzone to send the Hurricanes home empty handed.

3. Northwestern 21, Miami University (Ohio) 3 at Yager Stadium on Aug. 31, 2006

The first game after Randy Walker’s sudden death in the summer of 2006 was Miami University (Ohio) — his alma mater, where he had been the head coach for nine years before arriving in Evanston. There were ceremonies before the game and during halftime in honor of Walker, which led the AP to describe the atmosphere as “lending the feel of a memorial instead of an opener” in addition to helmet decals for both teams. Neither team scored in the first half, but NU scored 21 in the second half to give Pat Fitzgerald the win in his first game. The game itself was nothing special, but the significance of everything around this Saturday in August makes it an unforgettable night.

2. No. 10 Northwestern 45, No. 2 Oklahoma 13 at Dyche Stadium on Sept. 26, 1959

The events surrounding this game — which includes players getting poisoned — are some of the most interesting and bizarre stories in college football history. From a general college football standpoint, this contest would have ramifications for years to come. However, the game itself wasn’t pretty. NU dominated a sickly Oklahoma team, and the contest was played in a swamp. But even though the game wasn’t a nailbiter, it was still a complete thrashing of the No. 2 team in the country and the best football program of the previous decade. Without a doubt, it was one of the biggest victories in the history of the football program.

1. Northwestern 17, No. 9 Notre Dame 15 at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 2, 1995

The game that started it all. Notre Dame was one of the sharks of college football. NU was a minnow. Notre Dame entered as 28-point favorites and hadn’t lost to the Cats in over three decades. NU hadn’t won a season opener since 1975. But once the game started, the course of Cats football would be changed forever. Considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history, NU never trailed in the game. The Cats led 10-9 at the half, and a D’Wayne Bates touchdown in the third put NU up by eight points. Notre Dame had a chance to tie with a successful two-point conversion with about five minutes left, but quarterback Ron Powlus tripped.

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