It was 1995 when Northwestern shocked the college football world by winning an outright Big Ten title and going to the Rose Bowl for the first since 1948. Almost as improbably was the Wildcats following that up in 1996 with a share of the conference championship. But after two losing seasons, and the departure of head coach Gary Barnett, it looked like things might be returning to normal in Evanston. A three-win season under first-year head coach Randy Walker in 1999 seemed to validate the pessimism. But the 2000 Northwestern football team not only turned their fortunes around, they again did the improbable and snagged a piece of the league championship.
Walker used an innovative spread attack, but his biggest weapon was still an old-fashioned Big Ten running back. Damien Anderson had a monster season, rolling up over 2,000 yards and averaging better than six yards a pop. Anderson trailed only TCU’s LaDanian Tomlinson for the national rushing title.
Anderson almost singlehandedly carried the Wildcats to a #10 national ranking for points scored. Zak Kustok’s 57 percent completion rate was above average for Big Ten quarterbacks, but his 6.6 yards-per-attempt was subpar. Where Kustok did excel was spreading the ball around—five different receivers had between 26 and 38 catches on the year. And his 19-7 TD/INT ratio underscored his efficiency. But even so, this offense was Damien Anderson’s baby.
And that offense needed to be great, because the defense—in spite of an all-conference performer in Dwayne Missouri up front—ranked 100th nationally. There were no expectations in the preseason for these ’00 Wildcats, and they were unranked in the initial polls.
The three non-conference games didn’t stand out in either direction. As expected, Northwestern beat Northern Illinois and Duke, although the 38-5 waxing of the Blue Devils was impressive. But a trip to TCU for a Anderson-Tomlinson showdown turned into a 41-14 loss. It was when Big Ten play opened that the magic began for the Wildcats.
It started with a trip north to Wisconsin where the Badgers were the two-time defending conference champs. Anderson ran for 174 yards. Wisconsin’s Michael Bennett rolled up 293 yards. But Anderson did his damage on 21 carries, while Bennett got the rock 48 times. Northwestern had more balance. Kustok led a late drive for a game-tying field goal. At 34-34, we were going to overtime in Camp Randall.
Both teams scored touchdowns on their first possession. The Badgers got a field goal on their second possession. The Wildcats faced 3rd-and-6 on the 12-yard line. Anderson got the ball and went left. He went into the end zone and Northwestern had a 47-44 upset.
Michigan State wasn’t as good as Wisconsin, but the Spartans were coached by Nick Saban and the trip to East Lansing might have been an easy letdown spot. Except Northwestern again won on the road, this time 37-17. The first conference home game was against lowly Indiana, and the Wildcats won 52-33. Northwestern was 3-0 in the Big Ten and now ranked #17 in the polls.
Purdue came to Evanston. The Boilermakers had a pretty good offense themselves, with a quarterback named Drew Brees. Purdue handed the Wildcats their first league loss, 41-28. Then Northwestern went to Minnesota and dug themselves a three-touchdown deficit.
This could have been the point where a promising season goes awry. But the Wildcats rallied and pulled this one out, 41-35. With three games to play, they were squarely in a packed race for the Rose Bowl, with Purdue, Michigan, and Ohio State all in the hunt. And the Wolverines were coming to Evanston on the first weekend of November.
This would turn into one of the most electric offensive displays in the history of the Big Ten. And for most of it, Northwestern was doing the chasing. They trailed 14-7 after the first quarter, 28-23 at half and were still down 45-36 when the fourth quarter began.
Kustok ran 12 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to two. Northwestern added a field goal and moved ahead 46-45. But the Wolverines answered, scoring a touchdown. Defensive stops weren’t exactly in vogue today, but the Wildcats’ stopping of the two-point play was big. The deficit was 51-46 and a touchdown could now win it.
Northwestern marched the field one more time. Kustok tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Sam Simmons with 0:26 left. The Wildcats made their two-point conversion to make it 54-51 and that did prove significant when Michigan got a chance at a desperation 57-yard field goal on the final play. But it missed. An epic offensive showdown was over.
A road trip to face a bad Iowa team turned into a big letdown and a 27-17 loss. It was also a big missed opportunity—Purdue lost at Michigan State, and Northwestern missed the chance to get into the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl.
As it was, we were coming down to the final game with a four-way tie for first place. Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State were all 5-2 in the league. The Boilermakers held the tiebreaker, but in this era prior to the Big Ten splitting into divisions, co-championships were not only awarded, they were a big deal to the fan bases. The Wildcats could control their destiny for the latter, and they still had hope of the Rose Bowl.
Purdue took care of Indiana and locked up the bid to Pasadena. But Northwestern put on their own impressive display. They dropped 60-plus on Illinois in a 61-23 win. The Wildcats were tri-champs of the Big Ten, including Michigan, who won their season-ending rivalry game with Ohio State.
Northwestern was also #18 in the polls and aiming for the first bowl victory in school history. They got a ticket to the Alamo Bowl. It was an attractive opportunity to play ninth-ranked Nebraska, still a Big 12 team back then. The Cornhuskers had been ranked #1 through the end of October.
The bowl game…well, it was a disaster. Northwestern got blown out 66-17 and fell out of the final rankings. But the ugly ending couldn’t overshadow what a special season it had been in Evanston. They had turned their program back around. They would stay at or above .500 for three more seasons under Walker, whose offensive creativity continued to juice up the Big Ten.
Walker’s tragic death from a heart attack led to the hiring of Pat Fitzgerald, who has kept Northwestern in the mix for bowl bids in the ensuing years. If we look at the modern historical arc of Northwestern football, the 1995-96 run will always be the most special. But 2000 can be seen as a point when the Wildcats truly turned the corner from perennial doormat to the feisty dark horse they often are today.