Northwestern University students have long considered themselves the cream of the Big Ten -- if not on the gridiron, then certainly in the library. On Saturday, the school was beaten 61-14 by Michigan State in its 29th straight loss, a record for consecutive defeats in major college football history. The students have a cheer for moments like this. With the defensive assuredness of the smart kids at play, they scream:

"That's alright!

"That's okay!

"They're gonna work for us someday!"

This past weekend, some of that confident patina cracked. The national press arrived in Evanston, Ill., in the words of The Daily Northwestern, "like birds of prey to feast on the carcass that is NU football."

It was the dark side of the Midwestern football weekend, two days in Ordinary People country when tension was as sharp as the view from the stadium of a sun-sparkled Lake Michigan. There were jokes, gallows humor and resignation across campus, but at the core there was a pressure best seen in Doug Single, the 30-year-old athletic director who was brought in 11 months ago to turn around Northwestern football.

"It's awful," he said late Friday night. "The type of attention we're getting is bizarre. It's like we're in the twilight zone. I can almost hear the music -- dodododododododododo."

Single, the energetic and attractive new hero-to-be of NU football, spent the week giving interviews in his upbeat, good-guy style. "We're trying to take a negative and turn it into a positive," he said. He was the cool media man, a Stanford player in the 1972 Rose Bowl and an assistant football coach there for six years. Blond and strong-jawed, his suits veer to the preppie style favored by much of the NU student body, which is, according to senior Debra Rubins, interested in "grades, money and sex, in that order."

On the night before the game, the cool man snapped. Set off by a Daily Northwestern article that quoted Robert H. Strotz, the university president, as saying, "I think having a bad football team can help academic standards," Single sat with bloodshot eyes after a press reception in an NU club room. In front of him at a table were some staffers, a few local reporters and one of several Scotch and sodas he would have that evening.

"I've worked 18-hour days since December of last year," he yelled. "Ask any of the guys around here. The program was in a shambles when I took over. Then to hear Bob Strotz say that losing football enhances academic standards -- what am I to think?"

"I mean, I love the guy. But talk about a son being stunned. I sat there in my office for three hours today with nothing to do. I mean, I didn't answer a phone for three hours . . . what I saw today hurt me. It cut my legs off. It killed me . . . I wanted to make a difference here. I wanted it to be special. If one word suffices after reading what I saw in the Daily today, that is, I'm crushed. Does that mean I'm going to give up? No ----ing way."

Single, face flushed, then went at his players reputations. One was "a loser." Another was "a ----up." Some, he yelled, have no discipline. "Do you ever think a football player at SC, or Notre Dame, or Michigan would ever leave his helmet on the floor? Answer me! No! Damn it! They leave their helmets on the floor, they leave their shoulder pads on the floor, they don't give a ----. We build them a new locker room and they don't have the pride . . . If I were the recruiting coordinator, I wouldn't even look at any of those kids."

A bathroom break. It was two hours into Single's diatribe, and he and the male reporters, who hadn't ignored the bar either, filed out to the men's room. A few minutes later, everyone was back but Single. A staffer and a reporter went to look for him.

No sign. He had wandered alone into the cold blackness around the stadium, found his car, then driven home. The Kickoff

Saturday morning came crisp and clear, the kind of glorious fall day that everyone always says was made for football. To the south of Evanston you could see Chicago's skyscrapers, to the north the trees with a few remaining gold leaves. The band rehearsed on the field, the colorful Big Ten flags flapped in the wind, and little boys walked by with mittens attached to their coat sleeves.

Suddenly, Doug Single popped up in the crowd, strong as the day. There wasn't a hint of the night before.

"Hey, how are you?" he called out to one of the reporters who'd been there. "What's new?"

Out in a grassy parking lot, the tailgate parties sent the smell of roasting bratwurst into the air. The alums brought brie cheese, crab dip, dijon mustard and silver candelabra; the kids brought beer, vodka, dry sandwiches and well-practiced lines. "I think I love you!" one man called to a woman.

"Every time we score," said senior American culture major Joe Tatelbaum at the Beta Theta Pi tailgate party, "Willie the Wildcat, our mascot, is supposed to get out of his cage and run around. We haven't scored in three games. Well, for our fraternity float in the homecoming parade, we built a cage for Willie with a little bar and TV. He just hasn't been doing anything."

By game time, the student stands were packed. In the first quarter, when the score was 21-0 Michigan State, the beer drinking was well under way. "You have to get drunk during the games," explained Sara Reynolds, a senior, "because you can't watch otherwise."

"See, there's the game, and then there are the events in the stands," explained Tatelbaum. "Like passing girls up and throwing hot dogs into tubas and stuff."

"Passing girls up," or girl-passing, is a favorite stadium pastime. Male fans select a female fan and then pass her up over their heads, using their hands, to the top of the bleachers. Usually the crowd chants "All the way! All the way!" as she makes her way up, and then "Over the top! Over the top!" once she gets there. It is a mixed honor to be selected.

By half time, when the score was 41-0, Sara Reynolds' mother, who was there for Parents' Weekend, was offered some Jack Daniels whiskey from a goat skin by her son Kyle, another Northwestern student.

"This is your favorite whiskey," said Kyle.

"Goodbye, mother," said Mrs. Reynolds, gulping a stream of the stuff.

By the end of half time, the cheerleaders were getting ready for a familiar second half.

"Once you get past 20, you don't think about the score," said Renee Lenzy, a senior cheerleader.

"This can't go on forever," sighed Kimberly Joy Armstrong, a junior cheerleader. A listening sympathizer likened her job to cheering for the Titanic. "With the Titanic you can't get off," she replied.

In the third quarter, Northwestern got a touchdown. The place went nuts.

"WE SCORED!!!!" screamed Sara Reynolds, kissing a friend, Justin Skala. Hundreds of white NU balloons went into the air. The cheerleaders and band went crazy. The football players pounded each other.

"ROSE BOWL! ROSE BOWL! ROSE BOWL!" yelled the crowd. Then came the extra point.

"I love seeing Northwestern score," said Tatelbaum. "Seven points is great." He looked at the score board. "But 48-7 is real bad. I kinda thought we were going to win today. We're just getting rampaged."

At the end of the third quarter, another girl got passed up. And at the end of the fourth quarter, with the score at 61-14 and 41 seconds to go, Northwestern students rushed for the goal post. Within minutes after the game it was down. They carried it through the sleepy streets of Evanston to President Strotz's home, dumped it on his front lawn and chanted "STROTZ! STROTZ! STROTZ!"

The president appeared, said, "We'll beat 'em next year," then returned to his house for his usual after-game party. The students, pleased with the sighting, picked up the goal post, carried it to the beach, then threw it into Lake Michigan. The Build Down

"People in football know how hard you have to work to lose 28 straight games," observed Daily Northwestern assistant sports editor Ian Thomsen just prior to the 29th. "It's taken, I would guess, six years for them to get in a position to lose 28 straight games, to build up to this. Er, to build down to this."

Good humor was one approach many on campus took to "The Streak," as it was called. The other approach was the bystander's interest in an event that briefly diverted campus life from its main interests. A large number of Northwestern students are the sons and daughters of white, prosperous and conservative Midwesterners, moved by the hard-work ideals that drove their parents. The campus is a picturesque display of oak trees and hefty squirrels along the shores of Lake Michigan, but even in warm weather, the beach is rarely as crowded as the ritual 9 p.m. study break in the library.

Northwestern football has had some great moments, but not in the last few years. The Wildcats haven't won a game since September 1979. Last year, after former coach Rick Venturi was fired in the wake of the losing streak, as well as racist allegations brought by black players, Single brought in an old Stanford colleague, 32-year-old Dennis Green. He's now the first black head coach in the Big Ten and, in the eyes of some at Northwestern, potential hero number two. His job is to get rid of some of the deep-seated problems, recruitment and lack of attention to detail, in particular.

His role is the tough scrapper of the two Stanford buddies, a man who remarked during the weekend: "Adversity? S---. I mean, the sun's still gonna come up tomorrow. I sleep like a baby every damn night. I treat the players with as much dignity and respect as I can. That's why everybody likes me. I'm a hell of a guy."

But the weekend's tension touched him, too. Worn from 14 press interviews on Thursday, and set off by players who missed practice and weight-lifting, Green angrily dismissed nine team members the night before the game.

One was Steve Kaiser, a senior, a split end and a star. His father, a former Michigan State player who kicked the field goal that won the 1956 Rose Bowl, had come to town to see his son play. The Performance Story

"It makes you grow up a lot faster, with school and football as a combination," Kaiser said at a fraternity party Friday night. Dismissed from the game, he didn't stay in a hotel with the rest of the players. "You're subjected to a lot of pressure to perform," he continued. "Everything you learn is accelerated. You're boys when you come to college, but you gotta turn into men fast."

Kaiser is the sort of slick, good-looking football player you could find in an ad for after shave or underwear. During the weekend he sported a slight stubble of a beard. He is the son of a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., telephone sales representative, and he has two games left to play in his college career. He missed practice Monday and Tuesday, and didn't lift weights Sunday.

"I had no excuse," he said. "A lot of things got in the way. I was irresponsible, and I paid for it. The coach thought it had to be done -- so he did it . . . A lot of different things come out of losing. Football is important at the present time, but when you're looking 10 years down the line at your job or you're married or whatever, you look at different things. It's a learning tool."

If Kaiser is more disturbed than that, he's not about to remove the protective padding. "No, I'm not spilling my guts," he said. "A lot of the things you have to leave in the locker room."

The fraternity party soon became too loud for conversation, but the primary activity wasn't talking, anyway. It was drinking beer, mostly, in the basement of Psi Upsilon. Some people danced to a band and the rest rubbernecked, checking out what was available, both sexes identically dressed in straight-legged Levis, crew-neck sweaters and Topsiders. High-heeled boots for women were variations on the theme. One woman did have on black leather pants, but she was from London.

If you wanted to talk and watch what was coming and going, there was the hallway. Karen Margolin, a dark-haired sophomore from Livingston, N.J., in boots, cream corduroys, a black sweater and pearls, talked about her future.

"I'm going through sophomore slump," she said. "I can't get motivated to do my work, so I just blow it off and that makes me nervous. I think I'm getting ulcers. I don't know what I want to do with my life. And I can't go to the game because I have to go buy a dress for my sorority formal."

Her feelings on Northwestern football?

"I don't even understand why they do it," she replied. "I mean, I don't even understand professional football."

Then the topic turned to something more interesting. Guys.

"I don't know," she said. "There's something about guys on this campus. A lot of them are really stuck-up and cocky."

"There are a lot more good-looking girls here than guys," assessed Jane Rosenberg, a sophomore who had joined the conversation, "but there are a lot of really neat guys here."

"I haven't met any," said Margolin.

"Look at me," piped up Eric Leventhal, a sophomore from Westbury, N.Y. "What am I -- chopped liver?" The 29th Down

By dusk on Saturday, the game, goal-post baptism and tensions were over. Green had given a press conference ("I don't feel very good right now," he said), Single had disappeared from sight, and the players were coming out of the locker room, hair wet and faces ruddy from their showers.

"It's like getting shot in the head," said Bill Balmer, an offensive guard. "Another loss, another pain."

"It's like Michigan State didn't even have a game to play," said Lou Tiberi, a cornerback.

In another locker room, Green slouched in a folding chair, ruminating. "I'm glad it's over," he said. "Next year, when Northwestern plays, I hope you're going to be able to smell football in the air." A reporter remarked that Northwestern hadn't seen such a carnival over sports in years.

"This isn't sports," said Green. "This transcends sports."

Later in the evening, the campus was quiet. No big Saturday night parties, no bonfires, no noise. The only scene was at the PM Club, a gritty Chicago bar that NU students have turned into a hangout. But even there it was low-key. Frank Sinatra sang "I Did It My Way" as students cradled Strohs at the bar.

"If we'd won," said Scott Tinsman, a senior in industrial engineering, "we wouldn't know what to do."