Wildcats lose a game, but not nobility

January 02, 1996|By John Eisenberg

PASADENA, Calif. -- So, they didn't win. Lost it late in the fourth quarter.

Big deal.

The Northwestern Wildcats didn't need to beat Southern Cal yesterday in the Rose Bowl.

Wildcats players, coaches and alumni will howl in disagreement, of course. They wanted to win. That would have been a lot more fun than watching USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson run so wild that he set a Rose Bowl record for receiving yards in the first 39 minutes of USC's 41-32 victory.

But hey, you can't have everything. Especially when you're Northwestern.

Sure, a Wildcats win would have made their miracle season even better. But how much better could this story get? Not much.

At the risk of being saccharine, noble in defeat was enough for this team yesterday. Consider what they had already accomplished before the opening kickoff.

By just making it to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 47 years, the Wildcats not only put some soul and decency back into college football, but also reinforced one of sports' most appealing values -- unpredictability -- which is one of the primary reasons that games occupy such a special place in so many lives.

By just making it to the Rose Bowl for the first time since Harry Truman's presidency, the Wildcats proved that you don't have to bankrupt your standards to win in college football. And they proved to the country that nothing, absolutely nothing, was impossible.

I'll take all that over one measly Rose Bowl win any day.

Besides, as it happened on a clear-blue day in front of 100,102 fans yesterday, the Wildcats still played a superb, passionate game and were nothing if not winners in defeat.

Finding themselves down 17 points late in the second quarter after a devastating USC touchdown on a 53-yard fumble return, the Wildcats came back hard with passes from quarterback Steve Schnur, slanting runs from tailback Darnell Autry and a delicious onside kick in the third quarter.

They took the lead early in the fourth quarter at 32-31 and still kept coming after USC had rallied to finish them off. A long touchdown pass that would have pulled the Wildcats within three points with 68 seconds left was nullified by a holding penalty.

Fans of both teams were standing and cheering at the final gun. Florida and Nebraska will be lucky to play a game as riveting in the Fiesta Bowl tonight.

"It's one of the best games I've ever been involved in," USC

coach John Robinson said.

The Wildcats were devastated in defeat, their locker room a sprawl of tears.

"This is a horrible feeling to have," linebacker Geoff Shein said. "I'll say, 'What if?' for the rest of my life."

Someone asked coach Gary Barnett if the loss had tarnished the Wildcats' season. He thought for a moment before answering.

"It is not what it could have been," he said.

Understandable reactions. But with all due respect, the defeat will go down in history as little more than a footnote to the Wildcats' season. They will be remembered for years for what they did to get to the Rose Bowl, not for what they did once they got here.

Remember, this was a team with an average SAT score several hundred points higher than the Division I norm. What a statement it makes for a team to hold to such standards and still beat Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State.

And let's face it, this was Northwestern, the Mildcats, feeble court jesters of college football for decades. At a time when so many people's lives change so little over the years and come to assume a weighty predictability, the Wildcats' trip to the Rose Bowl proved that there is at least one place in the world -- sports -- where your imagination's wildest, most improbable stirrings can still come true.

Which is precisely the lure of sports for so many. It offers the amazing and unthinkable occurrences that everyday life does not.

In that sense, the Wildcats gave the country a fine holiday gift. Northwestern making it to the Rose Bowl meant that the shy, pimply kid in the back of the class could grow up and become a movie star. It meant that nothing was too weird or unfathomable to occur.

We already knew that, of course, after a year in which the Cleveland Indians played in the World Series for the first time in 41 years and the Cleveland Browns announced a move to Baltimore.

But Northwestern making it to the Rose Bowl was every bit the equal of those heavyweights for sheer unthinkableness.

This was a school that once lost 34 games in a row.

"No one believed in us in the beginning, and a lot of people did in the end, which is great," Autry said.

A win yesterday would have been perfect, and certainly deserved.

Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 12 passes worth 216 yards, stole their day.

"It seemed like he caught 100 passes," Barnett said.

It did.

Big deal.

Nothing could ruin the Wildcats' once-in-a-lifetime season.

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