The date: October 4, 1941
The matchup: Kansas State (0-0-1) at Northwestern (0-0)
The stakes: Minimal. Kansas State was bad enough to have just tied Fort Hays State, and Northwestern was coming off of a top-10 campaign. But this was the world’s first opportunity to watch Otto Graham with a football in his hands. Neither the world nor K-State was ready. Maybe this was the team that could help Pappy Waldorf and Bill DeCorrevont push Northwestern over the top.
The back story: From 50 Best*:
Four years before the 1941 campaign, and barely 12 months after the Wildcats reached No. 1 in the country, Northwestern’s future was impossibly bright. In fact, its future drew 120,000 at Soldier Field. The largest crowd to ever watch a football game in the United States had packed Chicago's famous stadium on November 28, 1937, to watch the Public League's Austin high school beat the Catholic League's Leo, 26-0, for the city championship. ("Packed" probably doesn't do it justice – Soldier Field only had about 76,000 seats at the time.)
DeCorrevont was the reason they were there. A five-star blue-chipper before the term even existed, he scored 35 touchdowns in 1937, and his real exploits were impossible to separate from the myths. He scored nine touchdowns in 10 touches against McKinley high school, and he scored three touchdowns and passed for another against Leo and its own star, John Galvin. Galvin would go on to star for Purdue, but DeCorrevont, with an opportunity to play for any school he wanted, stayed close to home and his widowed mother. He elected to attend the school 18 miles north of Austin high. He brought four Austin teammates with him, including future Chicago Bear Alf Bauman.
DeCorrevont’s career didn’t start out incredibly well. In the first two games of 1939, his sophomore year, Northwestern was shut out – 23-0 against Oklahoma and 13-0 against Ohio State. But he found a rhythm in a Week 3 win over Wisconsin, and he ripped off a 61-yard, game-winning touchdown with four minutes left in a 14-7 win over Minnesota. He was thriving early in 1940 before a badly sprained ankle took him down. He had only one carry in the gut-wrenching 13-12 loss to Minnesota, but he rebounded to throw touchdown passes against both Michigan and Notre Dame. In 1941, he was healthy, and big things were expected.
Of course, DeCorrevont didn’t even end up the biggest star on his own team.
The combination of Graham and DeCorrevont would make Northwestern one of the five best teams in the country. But in 1941, that meant the Wildcats were only one of the three or four best teams in the Big Ten.
The game: From the Chicago Tribune:
Kansas State, a Big Six team which calls itself the Wildcats and waves purple pennants like Northwestern, scarely showed any further similtude with the Evanston folks on the basis of the outcome of yesterday's football match before 40,000 in Dyche stadium. Kansas State was the first to score, but when it was all over and the rain pouring most dismally, the score was added up to Northwestern 51; Kansas State 3. [...]
Otto Graham, sophomore left half back from Waukegan, was one of the busiest of the 50 Evanston Wildcats. He scored three touchdowns, one on a ninety yard run after receiving a punt. Among the other things he did was figure in the tossing end of a pass play which was good for sixty-four yards for a touchdown by Ike Kepford.
Bill De Correvont, launching his senior season, made two touchdowns, once on a trip of a yard and again after a thirty-nine yard sprint.
This was expected to be a blowout before anybody knew what Graham was capable of. Waldorf discovered Graham — at Northwestern to play basketball and study music — on the intramural field and all but demanded he try out for the football team. Good call.
The box score:
A look at the box score makes it seem like it could have been so much worse than 51-3. First downs: 22-1. Total yards: 526-33.
This game pretty clearly defined Northwestern’s ceiling as sky high, and the Wildcats would soar straight from unranked to fifth in the country following a 41-14 shellacking of Wisconsin. But as had been the case so many times in recent years, they were always one or two plays away from greatness. They blew five second-half scoring chances in a 14-7 loss to No. 6 Michigan, and after they beat No. 11 Ohio State in Columbus by the same 14-7 score, they went to Minneapolis to give No. 1 Minnesota all it could possibly handle. But a long touchdown pass was called back by a penalty, and the Gophers scored on a safety and a trick play to win, 8-7. For good measure, NU also lost to a top-five Notre Dame team by a single point, 7-6.
This was easily one of the best and most dynamic Northwestern teams of all-time. But they came up nine combined points short against three similarly fantastic teams and finished 5-3. In any other conference, the Wildcats might have finished undefeated and won the national title. But winning the Big Ten was almost more difficult than winning the national title, and this ended up a massive what-if season.