Today, they were playing Notre Dame, in a series that goes back to the 19th century. Notre Dame was 7-2, ranked 18th in the country, and playing at home. They were 17 point favorites.
And with 18 seconds to go, Northwestern kicked a 45-yard field goal to tie the game 40-40 and send it into overtime. And then in overtime, the Wildcats kicked a 41-yard field goal to win, 43-40!!
Before this game, that kicker Jack Mitchell had not kicked a field goal as long as 30 yards all season.
The victory was even more improbable than that.
Notre Dame had just scored a touchdown to take the lead 40-29. Bizarrely, they went for two points, and failed. I turned to my dad and said, “I don’t understand that decision. Now, Northwestern can score a touchdown, get a two-point conversation and a field goal to tie the game.” (The TV announcers later said the same thing.)
And that’s what happened.
And it’s even more bizarre.
With about a 1:18 to go in the game, Notre Dame had the ball, second down, up by three points, and Northwestern had just used its last time out. I said, “They should just ‘take a knee’ to be safe, use up 70 seconds, meaning Northwestern would get the ball back with only 10 seconds left.” But Notre Dame decided to run a play. “Strip the ball,” I called out, knowing it was NU’s only hope.
And they stripped the ball! And recovered the fumble. Which let them drive down for Mitchell to kick the game-tying field goal with 18 seconds left.
Here's how bizarre the game was. They had a particular kind of play that I've heard about as being theoretically possible, but have never seen in all my years of watching football. And without it, Northwestern wouldn't have won the game. What it was it that they blocked a simple extra point -- fine, it's uncommon but happens, but then Nick VanHoose picked the ball up and ran it back the entire length of the field, which counts for two points. No two points, no overtime. No overtime, no victory.
There were bizarre plays throughout the game. A Notre Dame runner headed for a touchdown, but fumbling on the half-yard line, the ball rolling into the end zone where Northwestern recovered for a touch back. Northwestern on the three yard line, guaranteed a field goal, but throwing an interception. And having a easy touchdown pass float into one of their receivers hands in the end zone...only to drop it. A Notre Dame punt as the clock was running out of only a paltry 17 yards. And more and more. But in the end -- Northwestern 43, Notre Dame 40.
(Update: By the way, lest you think it's just me rhapsodizing about how bizarre the game was, here's the opening line I just came across from the Chicago Tribune's story on the game: "Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe a game that featured numerous flubs, turnovers and drops – plus tons of points.")
The last time Northwestern played at Notre Dame was in 1995 when the Wildcats were 28 point underdogs. And Northwestern upset the Fighting Irish. The All American linebacker on Northwestern was Pat Fitzgerald. And today, Pat Fitzgerald is coach of the team.
But I think the best thing of all was being able to watch the game here in Chicago with my 93-year-old dad, a massive Northwestern fan who had season tickets to NU football games for 53 years. The elves might be keeping the homestead warm in comfortable Southern California weather, while it's 28 degrees and snowing here -- but I got to see a beaming smile across my dad's face as he wore his Northwestern cap and said, "Unbelievable."
Yowza. Go Cats!