By Dan McGrath
Special to the Sun-Times
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pat Fitzgerald was quick to point out the lack of similarities between Northwestern’s last visit to Notre Dame Stadium and the one that took place Saturday.
On Sept. 2, 1995, Fitzgerald was the heart and soul of NU’s defense, a junior middle linebacker in the middle of everything as the forever-downtrodden Wildcats shocked the football world by slogging out a 17-15 victory over the Irish of Lou Holtz, who’d made only a token effort to recruit Fitzgerald out of Sandburg High School.
“That was the start of the renaissance,” Fitzgerald said. “Our program is in a completely different place today.”
“Today” finds Fitzgerald in his ninth year as the Wildcats’ coach. And in the midst of a trying season, they’re still capable of spanking the haughty Irish, which they did by rallying for a 43-40 overtime victory in a rematch 19 years in the making.
“I didn’t have a clue what was going on in 1995,” Fitzgerald said. “This was much more enjoyable because of the way our young men have stuck together.”
Northwestern (4-6) hadn’t won in nearly six weeks, since back-to-back victories over Penn State and Wisconsin had the Wildcats fancying themselves as Big Ten contenders. But in four consecutive losses, they were outscored 120-50, the low point coming in a 48-7 drubbing at Iowa when “we didn’t show up,” Fitzgerald said.
But their bowl prospects remained faintly alive when, on their first overtime possession, Jack Mitchell kicked a 41-yard field goal, the fourth of the game for the San Diego-bred senior, who was impervious to the game-time temperature of 29 degrees.
Meanwhile, Irish kicker Kyle Brindza, from Canton, Mich., missed his two field-goal tries, including a 45-yarder on Notre Dame’s lone overtime possession, and had an extra point blocked and returned for a two-point defensive conversion.
Sound in the kicking game? The Irish were so unsound that coach Brian Kelly eschewed a conversion kick and went for two after Everett Golson’s third touchdown collaboration with Will Fuller gave ND a 40-29 lead with 10:34 left. When the try failed, Northwestern was able to erase its 11-point deficit with Trevor Siemian’s six-yard TD scramble, Warren Long’s two-point conversion run and Mitchell’s 44-yard field goal with 1:09 left.
“Our chart tells us to go for one in that spot,’’ Kelly said, “but given our kicking-game circumstances, we were going to try to extend it with a two-point play.”
Kelly was more perturbed over three lost fumbles: Chris Brown’s at the Northwestern goal line, Golson’s at the Wildcats’ 7 and sure-handed Cam McDaniel’s at the NU 28 as the Irish tried to run out the clock on their 40-37 lead with 1:28 left. Golson also threw an interception that linebacker Anthony Walker brought back 65 yards to set up an NU touchdown.
“Critical mistakes,” Kelly said. “We didn’t kick the ball, and we didn’t take care of it.”
The Irish (7-3) have surrendered 211 points in their last five games.
Northwestern overcame two Siemian interceptions, at least five drops and a lost fumble by unveiling a big-play offense that piled up 547 yards, with Siemian throwing for 284 and freshman Justin Jackson running for 149. Afterward, as the Irish players trudged off the field in stunned silence, the Wildcats celebrated as if they’d won something meaningful . because they had.
‘‘Every fair-weather fan jumped off the boat,” Fitzgerald said. “We went through a media circus in the offseason, and we stuck together. In camp, we had a bunch of injuries, and we stuck together. With our backs against the wall, we had to adopt a playoff mentality, and we did.
“It’s about the young men. They did it. I hope they enjoy it because they earned it.”