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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Team Blooms but All Is Not Rosy

October 12, 1995|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI

If Northwestern, already 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference and 4-1 overall, somehow runs the table and wins its next six games (and Tori Spelling wins an Oscar), the Wildcats still might not reach the Rose Bowl.

Imagine: The 10-victory dream season, Northwestern's finest since well, ever, ends in, yuk, the Citrus Bowl?

Lost in the euphoria of Northwestern's best start since 1963 and the subsequent giddy talk of a trip to Pasadena or, longshot of longshots, an appearance in the all-important Fiesta Bowl, are two teensy-weensy details:

1--If undefeated Ohio State wins its next seven Big Ten games, the Buckeyes, not the Wildcats, will receive the Rose Bowl invitation.

2--Northwestern lost to Miami of Ohio.

Under normal circumstances, if Ohio State and Northwestern tied for the Big Ten championship, the Wildcats would get the Rose Bowl's automatic bid. But a two-way tie involving these teams wouldn't be normal circumstances.

According to the league's tiebreaker policy, the Buckeyes have almost all the advantages.

--First tiebreaker: Head-to-head competition.

Ohio State and Northwestern don't play each other this season.

--Second tiebreaker: Overall winning percentage.

So much for the Wildcats. The best Northwestern can finish is 10-1. Ohio State can go 11-0.

--Third tiebreaker: Date of last Rose Bowl appearance.

Doesn't matter if both teams don't lose another game.

--Little-known exception rule: If one of the teams is ranked No. 1 or No. 2, that team gets the Rose Bowl bid to ensure a game with national championship ramifications.

A 10-1 Northwestern team ranked No. 1 or 2? I can't believe I typed those words. An undefeated Ohio State team finishing No. 1 or 2? Possible, if not probable, depending on Nebraska and Florida State.

NORTHWESTERN--PART II

Whatever happens, the Wildcats will forever wonder how they blew a 28-7 fourth-quarter lead against Miami of Ohio and lost, 30-28. The upset came two weeks after Northwestern's shocking victory at Notre Dame and has remained on the players' minds even after victories over Air Force, Indiana and the most recent stunner, a 19-13 win at Michigan.

"Probably the lowest point since I've been here was the couple days immediately following our Miami of Ohio game," said fifth-year senior kicker Sam Valenzisi, the Northwestern captain who has yet to miss a field-goal attempt this season. "It might have been the biggest disappointment of my athletic career. And I think that I speak for the rest of the guys on the team when I say that it was the biggest disappointment that any of us have ever encountered since we've been at Northwestern."

Of course, the victory over then-No. 7-ranked Michigan helped ease the hurt.

"I don't think I touched the ground, I really don't," Valenzisi said.

Unlike the time it botched things after the Notre Dame upset, Wildcat Coach Gary Barnett said his team won't make the same mistake twice.

"I didn't feel we were big headed [against Miami of Ohio]," he said, "[We] didn't play the fourth quarter. I don't expect them to mishandle this situation."

Meanwhile, Big Ten coaches are coming out of the woodwork to offer the obligatory I-told-you-so to disbelieving media types.

"I've been touting Northwestern all summer," said Joe Paterno, whose Penn State team is 0-2 in the conference. "I told everybody around who would listen to me that Northwestern could have won three or four more games last year with any kind of luck at all."

Joe Pa didn't exactly mention when he picked the Wildcats to beat Notre Dame and Michigan on the road.

"Obviously, they've done a good job recruiting and done a good job coaching," said Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, through clenched teeth.

"A great team," said Minnesota Coach Jim Wacker, whose team plays Northwestern on Saturday.

If you're looking for reasons for the remarkable turnaround, try these:

Barnett's staff has been together for four years . . . 16 returning starters, all seniors . . . seven backups who are seniors . . . 13 takeaways vs. four giveaways . . . quality depth at every position except tailback and outside linebacker . . . success recruiting nationally . . . size and experience on the offensive and defensive lines.

"They have to shave twice a day and all that stuff," said Wacker, referring to Northwestern's linemen.

Barnett isn't getting too excited about Wildcat fever. He saw what happened against Miami of Ohio and he saw what happened last season, when, after a promising 3-3-1 start, Northwestern lost its four remaining games by a combined 158-54.

"Are we Michigan? No," he said. "Ohio State? Probably not. But we're a lot better than we were before."

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

There will be no soft landings at Miami, where first-year Coach Butch Davis now realizes someone snipped the rip cord on the Hurricane parachute.

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