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Graham, Wendland Treated Like Show ‘Cats

The highlights of this magical season for Shane Graham and Jason Wendland started late in the first game. Graham, a tight end from Thousand Oaks High, and Wendland, a reserve tackle from Newbury Park, threw the initial blocks on a victory-clinching 16-yard run for a first down by Darnell Autry that helped Northwestern upset Notre Dame.

The latest highlight for Graham was getting tackled by rabid Wildcat fans who stormed the Dyche Stadium field in Evanston, Ill., after a 21-10 victory over Penn State.

“It’s dangerous, man,” Graham said.

Yes, but isn’t it great?

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Graham, a fourth-year junior, said last week’s game provided the first sellout in which the majority of fans were not rooting for the visiting team. The Wisconsin game the previous week also was sold out, but Graham said too many fans were dressed in Badger red.

Graham was bowled over not just by the jubilant fans but the strange bowl-game atmosphere in Evanston.

“I was standing there during a TV timeout,” Graham said. “I looked up and the lights were on. Keith Jackson and Bob Griese were announcing the game on ABC. We were just about to go in for the game-clinching touchdown.

“The crowd was all purple, and everybody was jumping up and down. It felt like a Rose Bowl or a national championship game. It was just like what I dreamed about as a kid.”

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The idea of playing in the Rose Bowl should have been a wild one for Graham and Wendland considering the Wildcats, who are 75-252-5 since 1964, were dubbed by many as the worst Division I team in the nation when the two accepted scholarships in 1991.

But at 8-1, 6-0 in Big Ten Conference play, Northwestern will come to Pasadena, provided it doesn’t lose another game and undefeated Ohio State loses one of its final three games. Regardless, the Wildcats will play in a bowl game for only the second time in 113 seasons.

In the previous four years that Graham and Wendland had been in the program, including their redshirt seasons in 1992, Northwestern had gone 8-24-1, and there was no indication that its success this year would be so dramatic.

“We expected to be better,” Wendland said. “Personally, I didn’t expect this complete turnaround.

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“In years previous to this, at this time of the year, we’d be counting the days until the end of the season.”

Wendland and Graham, who share an apartment, keep a college preview magazine in their bathroom that ranked the Wildcats 79th before the season.

This week they are ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll.

But Northwestern players have taken more satisfaction from the reaction of their own community. The people of Evanston, Graham said, long have chastised Northwestern for two reasons: the university pays no city taxes, and it considered the football team an embarrassment. Evanston is finally backing the Wildcats.

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“The best sign is that the campus newspaper is supporting us,” Wendland said. “They had given us negative press ever since I had been here.”

Northwestern handled about 1,400 requests for press passes for last week’s game, Wendland said, where in years past the credential list was less than 25.

Wendland said one man deserves more credit than any other for Northwestern’s success: Coach Gary Barnett.

"[Royal Coach] Gene Uebelhardt was a great coach, but the thing about Gary Barnett is you talk to the guy and you instantly believe him,” Wendland said. “You want to go to war for him. He’s such an intense individual that he makes you intense, and he has the ability to take you to the next level.”

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Former Thousand Oaks High assistant coach Mike Gomes, caught up in the success of Northwestern and Graham, whom he coached in high school, flew to Illinois to see a game earlier this season.

Unfortunately for Gomes, he witnessed the Wildcats’ only loss, 30-28 to Miami of Ohio. Graham said he owes much of his success to Mike and brother Paul Gomes, another former Lancer coach.

“They’re the reason I’m in college football right now,” Graham said. “They pushed me in the weight room and taught me a lot about football and life.”

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St. Mary’s running back Ed Williams (Canyon) will start this week at Cal State Northridge because of a knee injury to Bonner Cunnings. Playing last week after Cunnings got hurt, Williams ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns and earned the Gaels’ offensive- player- of- the- week honor.


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