Northwestern finished the season with a 10–2 record. Under head coach Gary Barnett, the trio of quarterback Steve Schnur, running backDarnell Autry, and linebackerPat Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to a dramatic turnaround for the program. "Expect Victory" was the motto even as Northwestern began the season as 28-point underdogs. A surprising 17–15 season-opening win over heavily favored Notre Dame, along with subsequent wins over Michigan, 19–13, and Penn State, 21–10, drove the team into the national spotlight and helped make them media darlings. Northwestern achieved a ranking of #3 in the nation and won the Big Ten Conference title. They faced off against USC in the Rose Bowl where the Wildcats' Cinderella season came to a halt with a 41–32 loss.