Wildcats put ’95 behind, prep for repeat in 1996

CHICAGO (AP) — There’s no vacancy in Gary Barnett’s trophy case these days. It’s loaded with 18 coach of the year awards reaped from a season that still defies belief.
Barnett’s back has been slapped so often, it should be purple — an appropriate color when you’re “The Man” at Northwestern.
And his bank account, enhanced by a new 12-year contract, has never been healthier, even if he could have made more money elsewhere.
Like so many others with a story to tell, Barnett has written a book about his experiences following one of college football’s most stunning reversals.
So what possibly can he do to top last season, when he guided Northwestern to its first winning campaign in 24 years, a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth?
For starters, he must somehow put the accolades behind him. At least try. Wanting his players to do the same, he dipped deeply into his bag of motivational ploys.
“The first meeting we had before spring practice, I brought every player up who won any honor and had a nice placard made with their name put on it,” Barnett began. “I stood there with mine and we had a big waste can with 1995 on it behind us. We also had a 1996 All-Big Ten team board that didn’t have a single name on it, all blank spaces.
“One at a time we deposited those placards in the trash can that said ’95. We began with that mentality.”
The Wildcats, making their school’s second ever bowl appearance and first in 47 years, beat Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame en route to a 10-victory season before falling to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
“What Northwestern pulled off is the most incredible feat in football the last 50 years,” said Minnesota coach Jim Wacker. “It gives us hope. It can happen.”
Now the Wildcats, who had the nation’s toughest scoring defense last season, will be out to show that what transpired was no fluke. They are ranked 18th in the Associated Press preseason poll, their first preseason appearance since 1971.
Returning are Heisman contender Darnell Autry at tailback, All-America linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, quarterback Steve Schnur and big-play defensive back Hudhaifa Ismaeli, along with 10 other starters.
“I think Northwestern is the team you got to beat,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose team headed a preseason poll to win the league title. “The guys who made them good are back. You have to beat them, they won’t beat themselves.”
Penn State, which tied for third with Michigan last season, has eight defensive starters back — including corner Brian Miller. But the Nittany Lions, ranked 11th in the preseason, will need a strong season from quarterback Wally Richardson because they lost most of their offense, including wideouts Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott.
Ohio State, ninth in the preseason poll, returns 10 defensive starters and Lombardi Award winner Orlando Pace on the offensive line. But the Buckeyes don’t have Heisman winner Eddie George, wide receiver Terry Glenn or quarterback Bobby Hoying.
Michigan, with nine returning defensive starters, including All-Big Ten first teamers Jarrett Irons and Clarence Thompson, must replace tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka. The Wolverines are rated 14th in the preseason poll.
Iowa has an effective passer in Matt Sherman and a two-time 1,000 yard rusher in Sedrick Shaw, the Hawkeyes’ career ground leader.
And Wisconsin has another huge offensive line, much like the one the Badgers had when they won the Rose Bowl in 1994. It’s led by 6-foot-6, 325-pound tackle Jerry Wunsch. Tarek Saleh, with 12 sacks last season, heads the defense.
Illinois’ linebacker Dennis Stallings, who led the team in tackles last season, won’t be overshadowed by Kevin Hardy or Simeon Rice, who joined the NFL. Scott Weaver completed 53 percent of his passes, and Robert Holcombe became the sixth running back in school history to go over 1,000 yards for the underachieving Illini, just 23-22-2 under Lou Tepper.
Alex Smith, who rushed for 1,475 yards as a freshman but played only six games last season because of injuries, returns for Indiana. Defensive end Nathan Davis had 20 tackles for losses.
Michigan State has 14 starters back from its Independence Bowl team. Marc Renaud, recovering from a knee injury, gained 1,000 yards last season. Wideout Derrick Mason needs 740 yards to become the NCAA’s career leader in kickoff return yardage.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has a new defensive coordinator in Tim Rose and a new 3-4 scheme Wacker predicts will initially cause confusion.
“Our theory is if we don’t know what we’re doing, they don’t know what we’re doing,” Wacker said.