By the time it was done, minutes before the thousands left in a
shuffling silence, Gary Barnett's reputation had already begun
to inflate and rise. This is how it happens. A football coach
takes a program everyone laughs at, a school rich in money and
academic reputation but simply nowhere on the map of the game.
He takes Northwestern to someplace like South Bend, Ind., on the
first gleaming Saturday of the season and sees something that
all the experts missed. Beforehand he tells his players, "Don't
carry me across the field when we win." Then he goes out and
destroys Notre Dame's season.
Because, in South Bend anyway, what comes next doesn't matter
now. Lou Holtz's No. 9 Irish lost to Northwestern 17-15 on
Saturday, at home, but more than the possibility of a national
title was squandered in that astonishing welter of miscalled
plays and lost chances and quarterback Ron Powlus's tripping at
the worst possible time. "We don't ever think about losing
here," Holtz said. But now the Irish faithful will think all the
way to December, long and hard, and no reputations will suffer
more than those of Holtz and Powlus. Almost any loss would've
been more palatable than this one.
"We never expected this to happen," said Powlus.
Who did? Northwestern, 27 1/2-point underdogs, hadn't beaten
Notre Dame since 1962, when future Irish legend Ara Parseghian
was the coach of the Wildcats. Northwestern, 3-7-1 last year,
hadn't won more than four games in a season since 1971 and had
just one claim to football immortality: its infamous 34-game
losing streak, a Division I-A record, set in 1982. Meanwhile,
the fabled Irish, with a more experienced Powlus, a beefed-up
offensive line and the usual complement of blue-chip recruits,
landed in everybody's preseason top 10 and were expected to
follow last season's disappointing 6-5-1 finish by becoming,
well, Notre Dame again. Instead, the 59,075 congregated in the
sun-washed stadium watched Holtz's team flounder about with an
inept pass rush and hapless pass protection, woeful work on
special teams and a curious failure of confidence--and they
responded in kind. Once, Notre Dame safety LaRon Moore turned to
the student body and pumped his arms furiously, urging the fans
to come alive. They barely moved. They couldn't believe what
they were watching.
"It's embarrassing," said split end Derrick Mayes, who returned
for his senior season partly because he thought Notre Dame had a
chance to win the national championship. "It's just so
frustrating. No matter what we do, it seems like it's not enough."
Nobody personified that sense of inadequacy more than Powlus,
the wonder boy of whom plenty has been expected and little has
been realized. Powlus had a fine enough game, hitting 17 of 26
passes for 175 yards. But from the start of his college career
he has been saddled with huge expectations, been called a
potential multi-Heisman Trophy winner and been compared to
former Irish quarterbacks Joe Montana and Rick Mirer. It may be
unfair, but outsized glory and spectacular failure are the two
options when you sign on with Notre Dame, and on Saturday,
Powlus produced what will likely be the season's most memorable
gaffe. After the Irish scored with 6:15 left in the fourth
quarter to cut Northwestern's lead to 17-15, Powlus set up under
center to attempt a two-point conversion. But as he back pedaled
out of the snap, Powlus tripped lamely over center Dusty
Zeigler--and Notre Dame was done.
"Turnovers, a couple of bad snaps, the play where I tripped on
the center's foot--those things shouldn't happen," Powlus said.
"But I don't think it's the same as last year. Last year things
just fell apart. This year it's just that we haven't put it
Or even come close. On Notre Dame's opening drive, tailback
Randy Kinder fumbled the ball away at midfield; Northwestern
drove for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Later Notre Dame freshman
kicker Kevin Kopka missed a point-after off a low snap. Powlus
was sacked four times. And even Holtz, known for his tactical
acumen, wasn't immune: With the Irish trailing 17-15 and four
minutes to play, the Notre Dame coach decided to go for the
first down on fourth-and-two from the Irish 44-yard line. The
attempt failed. "Looking back, we should have punted the ball
there," Holtz says. "It was probably the logical thing to do,
but sometimes everybody's talking too much on the sidelines,
saying if we miss it we can still stop them and get the ball
back. We should've punted the ball."
While Notre Dame spent the entire afternoon giving lessons on
how to be rattled under pressure, Northwestern methodically
followed a long-held plan. Barnett, 49, the fourth-year coach
who earned his Division I chops under Bill McCartney at
Colorado, said, "I expected this to happen." Which isn't
instantly easy to believe; the last three times the two teams
played, Notre Dame outscored Northwestern by a combined 111-34.
But four years ago Barnett told many of these same seniors that
they would beat Notre Dame this season. A superb kicking game
(the Irish totaled minus-three yards on nine Wildcat punts) and
only one turnover, as well as prime-time performances from
tailback Darnell Autry (33 carries for 160 yards) and
quarterback Steve Schnur, proved a killing combination.
"We didn't do anything special," said Schnur, who completed 14
of 28 attempts for 166 yards and two touchdowns. "We just came
in here prepared to play a good football game. We weren't
intimidated by them at all. We felt we had played with them last
year, but they beat us in the second half. So we were determined
not to let it happen again."
"Seriously, we never doubted ourselves for a second," says
Northwestern kicker Sam Valenzisi. "We may have gotten a little
scared, but we never doubted. The difference between this year
and the last three was that in the past we played on emotion,
while this year we played on ability. We trusted ourselves to go
jaw-to-jaw with Notre Dame. We knew we could play with them."
For Notre Dame partisans, Valenzisi's statements may be the most
frightening thing. If Northwestern can do this, how does that
bode for the rest of what is a typically tough Irish schedule?
For suddenly nothing better illustrates the state of Irish
football than the unbelieving stares on the faces of those
walking out of the stadium on Saturday and the low murmur that
contained more than a few references to the ragged days of
former coach Gerry Faust. With a 7-7-1 record since beating
Florida State in 1993, this is clearly a team more in transition
than contention--and ripe for more days just like this.
"I really have no idea," Holtz said when asked to explain his
team's recent slide. "It's very difficult to sit here and
analyze when it hurts so much. We just have to go back to work
and figure it out."
Long after the final whistle blew, many of the fans simply sat
in their seats, taking in the now empty field. Then they were
gone, too. Finally Holtz left and climbed into his car alone. He
passed through the stadium gate, braked at the stoplight and lit
his pipe. The light turned green. He drove into the twilight.