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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

A Rush of Nostalgia in Evanston

October 12, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE

The two most exciting offenses in football today are operated by the St. Louis Rams and . . . the Northwestern Wildcats?

Yep, cat scratch fever is back, so much so that all you sportswriters who graduated from Northwestern may have to pose for another group photo in the Rose Bowl press box.

There will never be another 1995, the year the lovable losers from Evanston won the Big Ten title, tugged at America's heart, filled scrapbooks with purple prose and fulfilled every dream in Pasadena short of actually winning the Rose Bowl game.

Northwestern won the Big Ten crown again in 1996 and went to the Citrus Bowl before going into a 5-7, 3-9, 3-8 slide that has made this year's rerun for the roses almost as compelling.

Do not adjust your sports page. You read it right. Northwestern is 3-0 in the Big Ten and Wisconsin is 0-3.

As it was in 1995, Northwestern's moon is in the seventh house.

As it was in 1995, and 1996, Northwestern doesn't play powerhouse Ohio State thanks to the Big Ten's lottery-ball, screwball, random-draw schedule format.

After winning one Big Ten game the last two years, No. 17 Northwestern has already disposed of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana and looks to add No. 22 Purdue to the list Saturday when the teams meet in Evanston.

It's not too early to start crunching numbers.

If Northwestern (5-1 overall) and Ohio State (5-0) win out, the Buckeyes claim the Big Ten based on overall record, but that scenario would likely send Ohio State to the Orange Bowl to play for the national title.

And that scenario would leave Northwestern bound for Pasadena (the Rose Bowl is not obligated to take a Big Ten team if it loses Ohio State to the bowl championship series title game, but a 10-1 Northwestern would be a lead-pipe cinch).

Should Ohio State lose a Big Ten game and Northwestern wins out, the Wildcats take the conference outright and get the Rose Bowl bid.

These, of course, are not your older brother's 'Cats.

Gary Barnett, architect of the '95 miracle run, sold his restaurant and moved on to Colorado, where he presides over a 1-4 team.

Northwestern hired Miami of Ohio's Randy Walker, who took Barnett's leftovers and limped to a 3-8 finish last year, leaving no worldly inkling the 2000 edition Wildcats would go combustible with an offense capable of hanging half-a-hundred points on Indiana and amassing 544 yards against Wisconsin.

Northwestern, which averaged a league-low 12.8 points a game in 1999, has averaged 37.7 points through six games this year. The Wildcats rank 10th nationally in total offense.

Walker and his staff have pulled off one of the great con jobs in recent memory. There's no denying the St. Louis Rams' offensive influences on Northwestern. In the off-season, Walker dispatched Kevin Wilson, his offensive coordinator, to Ram headquarters to study the nuances of St. Louis' unstoppable force.

This was no master stroke.

"We inherited a program here that coming into this season would have no tight ends or fullbacks in the program," Walker said. "There were none."

Walker had no choice but to go to four- and five-receiver sets.

"The no-huddle just seemed like a good idea, we thought we could change the tempo a bit," he said.

As Big Ten coaches are discovering, the spread formation is a ruse. It only looks like the Rams' offense. In fact, Northwestern uses the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme to set up its running game.

Opposing coaches, you might want to jot this down: Northwestern ranks 81st in the nation in passing this week and No. 8 in rushing.

Damien Anderson, the junior tailback, is the man to stop. Anderson has rushed for 200 yards or more in consecutive weeks and carried 36 times last week against Indiana.

After Anderson rushed for 292 yards last week, the lightbulb went off in Indiana Coach Cam Cameron's head. He realized he was trying to plug the wrong hole in the dam.

"See if they can beat you throwing the football," Cameron offered as advice his week. "They haven't had to do that yet."

You figure the Big Ten is going to eventually catch on.

"What's probably going to happen is that after the season people are going to sit down and try to figure out what they're doing," Michigan State Coach Bobby Williams said.

Until then, Northwestern might be able to steal another trip to Pasadena.

GOING OVER THE BOOKS

You have to take the good with the bad in the crystal ball business.

Last week, your humble soothsayer formed one of the most foretelling paragraphs of his career when he wrote in advance of the Florida State-Miami game:

"Wide Right III? It could happen. With Sebastian Janikowski now kicking for the Oakland Raiders, Bowden is back to biting his fingernails over his kicker, Matt Munyon . . . "

Thank you very much.

On the same day, unfortunately, Oklahoma put a 63-14 whammy on Texas, my preseason No. 1.

Mind you, I attached more conditions on that pick than a Donald Trump prenuptial, foremost being Coach Mack Brown's ability to diffuse a potential tinder box at quarterback.

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