Instead, Larry Curry's last-minute errant snap and the Wildcats' 30-28 loss to Miami of Ohio on Sept. 16 may have provided the rallying point that got them to Pasadena for the first time since 1949.
"It was sort of a defining moment, that week," Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett said.
Said running back Darnell Autry: "We learned a lot from that game. I wouldn't have had it any other way. If we'd won that game, maybe we'd be 2-9 because we wouldn't have learned anything. We learned we have to play a full game and not half a game."
Only Curry himself doesn't seem to believe the loss was a blessing in deep disguise, a turning point in launching the Wildcats to the best season in their history.
"It brought us together as a team, maybe," he said. "I'll never admit it was [helpful]."
The Wildcats opened the season with an upset of Notre Dame, vaulting them into 25th place in the polls. Maybe Barnett's talk about going to a bowl game wasn't so crazy. The next week, they were 17-point favorites over the Redskins, and they seemed to justify that by taking a 28-7 lead in the fourth quarter.
But bit by bit, that lead evaporated. Suddenly, the Wildcats were ahead by only one, 28-27, but there was less than a minute to play and steady punter Paul Burton was in formation at his 37-yard line.
Curry, a defensive tackle, had replaced the regular long snapper, Paul Janus, after Janus injured his shoulder in the first quarter. He had had trouble on two previous snaps. It was unthinkable it would happen again.
Except it did. "It just came off wrong," Curry said. "Why, I have no idea."
Curry's low, bouncing snap eluded Burton, who chased it down at Northwestern's one-foot line. Miami took over with 43 seconds to play and kicked a field goal, dumping Northwestern, 30-28. Barnett's transformation of the sad-sack Wildcats into winners had been short-lived. A bowl invitation? Those don't arrive when you can't beat Miami of Ohio.
"I feel bad for our students and fans. We created a bandwagon that everybody jumped on," Barnett said after the game. "I guess it's Teflon-coated. Now they'll slide right off."
The bandwagon resumed rolling the next week, but the Miami game remained a dent in Northwestern's chassis.
The Wildcats won the rest of their games, but because of that loss--and because Ohio State was rampaging through its schedule undefeated--their Rose Bowl chances were slim. If Northwestern and Ohio State had tied for the Big Ten title, the Buckeyes would have gone to California because they had a better overall record.
The Wildcats finished their regular season Nov. 18 expecting to go to the Citrus Bowl, and hey, that wouldn't have been painful. But when Michigan upset Ohio State the next Saturday, the Wildcats had their first Big Ten championship since 1936 and tickets to Pasadena. It meant the Miami loss didn't matter anymore--or did it?
It still matters to Curry, a senior from Granite City, Ill.
"I don't look at it any differently now. I still see it as a game we should have won," he said. "I just basically didn't get the job done.
"As far as the rest of the season went, it was only the second game of the season and we had nine left. I had to make a decision whether I was going to let it get me and stay with me or if I was going to get past it. The job was mine for the next few games."
His teammates immediately closed ranks around him, which Barnett saw as the first encouraging sign after a dispiriting loss.
"He's just a mentally tough individual, and all of his teammates came to his side," Barnett said. "In the press conference after the game, the question arose [about the bungled snap] and they said, 'We are not answering any questions about individuals. This is a team game,' and they got up and walked out.
"I personally went to the locker room and went right to Larry and talked to him. Larry was just one of the stories of that game, he was just the most obvious one. We talked a little bit and then we buried it."
Said center Rob Johnson, one of the team's tri-captains: "It wasn't Larry Curry's fault. It was the entire team's fault. Any time you blow a [21-point] lead in the fourth quarter it's not one person's fault. Unfortunately for Larry, the play people remember is his mistake."
Yet, Barnett wasn't completely sure how his team would respond.
"We were traumatized for about three days--Sunday, Monday and Tuesday," he said. "We did not exactly know how we were going to handle it, and the kids weren't sure how they were going to handle it. [Later that week] I said to the players, 'What has to be decided is whether we will be the team that beat Notre Dame or the team that lost to Miami of Ohio.' We felt from that point on they made a decision.
"We couldn't keep hanging onto Miami. On Thursday, I talked to them and basically said, 'If you hang onto this thing, you're going to trap yourself.' "
Curry bought that line of thinking, adopting Barnett's words and clinging to them as a personal mantra.
"I knew they still had confidence in me," he said. "It shows a lot for our team. It was a devastating loss and we showed the next week we were the team that beat Notre Dame, not the team that lost to Miami of Ohio. I think everybody but us thought it was a fluke. . . .
"Everybody knew we had potential to be a very good team and the Notre Dame game reinforced that. Everybody knew this could be a breakthrough year. It was just a matter of how hard we worked. The Notre Dame game gave us confidence."
And the Miami of Ohio game didn't destroy that confidence. "That game catapulted us to the season we've had," Johnson said. "It was the final lesson we had to learn."
Best of all for the Wildcats, the learning process didn't cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl. "Fortunately, not," Johnson said. "That would have been an unfortunate lesson to learn."
Said Curry: "I have no idea why it came out wrong, but I guess it all turned out right in the end."