From roses to weeds: NU’s collapse

By The Columbia Chronicle

Marcus Jenkins

Senior Correspondent

Welcome back Northwestern, we’ve been waiting.

Three years, one month and a day we’ve been waiting for you to come back to earth.All those who thought Purple Power was going to reign forever, think again.

Your Mildcats are back.

After NU shocked Notre Dame and the world on Sept. 3, 1995, the Wildcats brought some things later that season to Evanston with a 17-15 upset that fans haven’t seen since 1936: Respect, a Big Ten title, and a Rose Bowl berth later in that magical year. But these eagles have landed on their face-masks.

Just three weeks ago, NU dropped a 13-10 stunner to Illinois. Although it was the Illini’s second win of the season, it was their first victory against a Division I-A team. In three seasons.

But the Wildcats’ slide back into the abyss had already began before that.Back-to-back bowl berths (Rose ‘96, Citrus ‘97) and Big Ten championships are fading memories for a squad that finished eighth in their conference last year with a 3-5 record (5-7 overall).

This year, NU has stumbled after winning two of their first three. They’re winless in conference play (0-3) with a lackluster 2-4 record which pretty much knocks them out of the bowl picture.

Last Saturday’s tilt with Michigan (ranked just outside the AP Top 25) and visit from #1 Ohio State this weekend will almost certainly take care of ensuring NU a losing season.

What happened?

While head coach Gary Barnett was the one everyone lauded when they were feasting, he might be at the head of the table when blame is served. After taking over in 1991, Barnett endured seasons of 3-8, 2-9 and 3-7-1 before working the Wildcats’ 10-2 wonder in 1995. One might speculate that it just took that long for the players he recruited to mature.

But if that’s so, how come success hasn’t continued? This year, Barnett might be let off the hook. Injuries have ravaged his offensive line so badly that at one point in the season, he only had 11 linemen available to suit up for a game. And a mid-season quarterback controversy hasn’t helped.

NU’s all-time career receiving yards leader, WR D’Wayne Bates, has struggled to produce the numbers he enjoyed with former QB Steve Schnur at the helm. Bates has 41 catches for 584 yards and four touchdowns. Now QB’s Gavin Hoffman (90 for 159, 1056 yards, 6 TD, 7 INT) and Nick Kleinbrink (12-23, 172 yards, 1TD) haven’t exactly spelled Schnur this season, but Hoffman gets the nod when the heat is on. Not to mention that this is a very young team .

It’s hardly a reason for NU fans to want to give up the ship. After all, this is a team that went 18-90-2 in the 80s. But losing to an Illinois team that resembles the Wildcats of the old knocked every NU fan off of the feet they’ve been standing on for three years, one month and a day.

Maybe the Illini were just keeping their seat warm.