For as long as anyone on campus could remember, the Northwestern Wildcats had mostly meowed and whimpered. They hardly ever roared.

After battling Illinois to a scoreless tie in the first game last season, the Wildcats lost their next 10 contests, yielding a generous 355 points in the process.

Meow.

This season they picked up where they left off, with the Michigan Wolverines gnawing the Wildcats to death, 49-7.

Whimper.

Ah, but then Wyoming came to town last Saturday, and the Wildcats scored three touchdowns, added two field goals and clawed the Cowboys, 27-22.

Roar.

For Rick Venturi, the Wyoming game was a first -- the first game he had won since becoming the football coach at Northwestern last season.

For the avearage senior, the Wyoming game was a third -- only the third game they had seen the Wildcats win while they have been students. The last victory came when they were sophomores and the victim was Illinois.

The victory drought had brought many Wildcat backers to the brink of depression and desperation.

After a 40-point ambush by Ohio State last year, Venturi remarked, "The only difference between me and Gen. Custer is that he didn't have to watch the films on Sunday."

One NU alumnus suggested with a straight face that Venturi contact Pope John Paul II and urge him to add Northwestern's Dyche Stadium to his Chicago itinerary next month.

College football highlights featuring Northwestern being trounced by one team after another were an embarrassment even to CBS broadcasters Brent Musburger and Irv Cross, both NU grads. Musburger used to be a campus radio announcer, and Cross was a star receiver for the Wildcats two decades ago.

But for some reason, Venturi saw not only the light but the end of the tunnel while preparing for last Saturday's game against the Cowboys.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers favored Wyoming by nine points, but that was almost like being even for the Wildcats, who had not been favored to lose by so few points since the unexpected tie at Illinois. There was even talk -- perhaps whispered -- on the Evanston campus that Northwestern just might win this one.

Some of the near 20,000 people in Dyche Stadium weren't so sure about a victory after the Cowboys scored a touchdown on their first possession.

"Do you realize that the last time we won a ball game, gasoline was 60 cents a gallon?" asked engineering senior John Shannon, who admitted he really came to the game only to shoot pictures of his girlfriend, who made her cheerleading debut.

"I figured I'd better come to this game against the Cowboys if I wanted to see a win before graduation," he added.

But just when it looked like so many other winless Saturday afternoons, the Wildcats began to give some credibility to their "Showtime '79" slogan.

They were led by sophomore quarterback Mike Kerrigan.

"I did not know I was starting until I got to the stadium this morning," said the 6-foot-3, 190-pound speech major. He was forced into duty when the second string quarterback, Chris Capstran, injured a groin muscle. Capstran had completed 10 of 14 passes against Michigan in relief of strong-armed starting quarterback Kevin Strasser, who was injured early in that game.

Kerrigan was not offered an athletic scholarship until after the Wyoming game. He completed 12 of 28 passes for 182 yeards and one touchdown, to sophomore receiver Steve Bogan, who last year set a Big Ten record with six touchdown catches.

Freshman halfback Jeff Cohn ran for 82 yards, which is more than 10 percent of the 747 the Wildcats rushed for as a team all of last season.

Freshman fullback Keith Dennis scored two touchdowns while senior Todd Sheets kept the Cowboy line-backers busy with 10 and 15 yard pass patterns.

But the hero was Kerrigan.

"My first win and this kid (Kerrigan) comes off the bench to lead us. I'm going to love him right now," said an ecstatic Venturi. "Other than a few personal events, this is the happiest day of my life."

Venturi admitted he almost coached himself out of the victory with conservative play-calling in the waning minutes but reasoned, "I didn't know what to do in that situation. I never had a lead before."

True. In his 12 games as coach, the Wildcats never before had been ahead.

The victory cost Northwestern some distinction, however. The Wildcats were, at least temporarily, dropped from the "bottom 10" ranking by Los Angeles pollster Steve Harvey, who calls Northwestern the Mildcats.

That opprobrium could be further diminished with a win Saturday over Syracuse. The Orangemen are favord by 17 points, but that is a meager margin in light of the fact that oddsmakers would not even quote spreads on NU against Michigan or Ohio State last season.