>It is Wednesday and hump day is better known in these circles as LTP Vault day. Our resident historian, Shane, has a tough task this week. As you know, all season long I’ve asked Shane to shed light on pre-Dark Ages games to offer up some historical context and great “I didn’t know that!” moments. However, when you’re opponent is Penn State, a team you first faced in 1993, it really doesn’t make too much sense to focus on not so close connections. Shane is up to the task and took a creative approach to the solution. Shane – all yours…
Due to our focus on pre-1980s Northwestern football history, this one is very tough because the Wildcats didn’t play PSU until the 1990s. Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno played at Brown, but NU has never played them. Several PSU assistant coaches played at Penn State but again, NU didn’t play PSU in that time period. Other assistants, like former ‘Cats defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden, played at schools that NU hasn’t played at all.
As a result, I decided to look at some of NU’s most memorable 9th games. The 1955 contest against Illinois stands out. Fighting Illini fans had to be pleased that Bob Voigts was no longer coaching at NU. Voigts led the ‘Cats to a 6-2 record versus U of I from 1947 to 1954. But the Daily Northwestern called for Voigt’s firing in November 1954 and soon The N Club echoed those calls. Former NU QB Otto Graham had recently retired from the NFL and was everyone’s favorite to replace Voigts, but Graham denied any interest in the job, perhaps because he thought he might not be done with the Cleveland Browns and indeed he played one more year. Lou Saban, an assistant under Voigts, was promoted to head coach and inked to a one-year contract.
Entering week 9 of the 1955 season, Northwestern was as low as one can go. The team had lost 15 of its last 17 games, including all of its first 8 games of the ’55 campaign. Meanwhile, Illinois was enjoying a nice rebound from a bad 1-8 season in ’54 by posting a 5-3 record in ’55. The Illini were a talented squad with future pros Bobby Mitchell, Ray Nitschke and Abe Woodson. Although NU was terrible, 35,000 fans bought tickets to see the rivalry game.
Maybe most of the crowd were Illini fans, but even they had to appreciate the gutsy performance by the ‘Cats. Less than three minutes into the game on the sixth play from scrimmage, Illinois HB Bobby Mitchell dazzled everyone with a 27-yard TD run. Mitchell averaged an incredible 8.6 yards per carry in 1955, but the ‘Cats defense “held” him to 107 yards in this game. After NU fumbled the kickoff at its own 41 and U of I recovered, it looked as if a blow-out would commence. But the Illini self-destructed with penalties and had to punt. With nothing to lose but pride, ‘Cats HB Jim Troglio led his teammates downfield on a 81-yard march. Northwestern QB Dale Pienta connected with End Jack Stillwell for 14 yards, then Pienta called his own number to reach the Illinois 38. Troglio carried next and bolted 28 yards to the Illini 4. He scored on the next play and after the PAT was good, the Wildcats had tied the game at 7-7. Both teams had threats in the second half, but neither could reach the end zone. The game ended with Pienta fumbling the ball inside the Illinois 20.
Coach Fitzgerald doesn’t believe in a moral victory, but the 1955 tie against a favored and talented Illinois squad was something close to one. Pienta, halfback Jerry Weber and Troglio were all banged up during the season and never at full strength. The Tribune described Troglio as suffering from “chronic miseries.”
A few weeks after this game, Purdue head coach Stu Holcomb resigned to become Director of Athletics at NU. A few days later, Holcomb fired Saban and the entire coaching staff. One of the dismissed assistants was ends coach George Steinbrenner. And only a few days after that, Holcomb hired Ara Parseghian.
If you get a chance, take a stroll through Black Shoe Diaries today as LTP will be parachuting in for a cameo to breakdown Saturday’s tilt. While you’re there, take your sense of humor and appreciation for photoshop to check out some truly genius Penn State slants on the upcoming Northwestern game. Never has “hate” seem so forced. Click here.