By Adam Hoge-
EVANSTON (CBS) Excuse Northwestern fans for not being surprised with what happened Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field.
Holding onto a 28-16 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats allowed Nebraska to score two touchdowns in less than four minutes to steal a 29-28 win on the road.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win and down the stretch we just didn’t make the one more play we needed to make,” NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game.
Those plays included dropping two interceptions on Nebraska’s second-to-last touchdown drive that likely would have iced the game. It also included a missed 53-yard field goal by Jeff Budzien — his first miss of the season — with 1:10 left in the game that would have given the ‘Cats the lead back.
Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, late game collapses have become a theme in what has otherwise been an outstanding tenure as Northwestern’s head coach.
But Saturday’s collapse was the most significant yet.
In a conference — and more specifically a division — that is wide open, this was Northwestern’s best opportunity to do something big under Fitzgerald’s watch. A win would have put the ‘Cats in the thick of the Legends title hunt, while a loss means they’ll have to win out to have any kind of chance to make it to Indianapolis.
In the disappointing Big Ten, the motto is: It might not be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be.
“I told you guys early in the year, we’re not going to win any beauty contests,” Fitzgerald said Saturday.
That sentiment applies conference-wide and it’s the reason why Northwestern had a realistic shot at reaching the Big Ten Championship Game with a win over Nebraska. Sure, it wouldn’t have been easy. In addition to next week’s game against Iowa at home, road games at Michigan and Michigan State remain. But in this conference, anything can happen.
It’s that reality that still leaves the Wildcats with a small prayer — they could theoretically still win out — but even then, Nebraska would hold a tiebreaker if the Cornhuskers finish with only two Big Ten losses.
And realistically, who can trust the ‘Cats to hold onto late leads, which they’ll almost assuredly have to do in their final two road games? In Northwestern’s only other loss of the season, it had a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter at Penn State before the Nittany Lions rolled off 22 unanswered points to win comfortably.
“I don’t think it has anything to do psychologically because a week ago we went out in a two minute drill and our defense pushed the offense back three times,” Fitzgerald said.
Yeah, but that was against Minnesota.
And Fitz showed his own lack of trust in closing out games defensively when he went for it on 4th-and-inches at the four yard line while holding a five point lead. There was just under nine minutes left and a field goal would have given Northwestern an eight-point lead — still a one possession game. The ‘Cats went for it and got the first down on a two-yard run from Kain Colter and Mike Trumpy scored a touchdown on the next play, giving Northwestern the 28-16 lead it eventually coughed up.
“Just playing to win,” Fitzgerald said about the gutsy call. “We struggled a little bit early moving the football. We were deep in the red zone and felt like we needed touchdowns instead of field goals. And their offense is so darn explosive that you never feel like you got the thing in the bag.”
Well, he was right. The ‘Cats didn’t even have it in the bag after the touchdown.
The truth is, Northwestern probably shouldn’t have had the lead it did in the first place. The Wildcats benefited from three Nebraska lost fumbles — including two muffed punts — and generally bad special teams play by the Cornhuskers. Nebraska finished with 543 total yards to NU’s 301 and Taylor Martinez had more passing yards (342) than the ‘Cats had total yards.
But that doesn’t excuse Northwestern for giving up the lead and probably its best chance at winning the Big Ten under Pat Fitzgerald.
“We have big games left,” the head coach said. “That’s the way you have to look at it.”
They do. And technically all of their goals are still in front of them — especially winning a bowl game. But the goal of winning the Big Ten is almost gone and the path will probably not be this easy again any time soon.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.