The Top Ten worst losses of my tenure as a Northwestern football fan, a list that absolutely omits a lot of older heartbreak before I attended the school and also is definitely influenced by which games had my attention more actively…
Jan. 1, 2010: Auburn 38-NU 35 (OT)
WHY IT WAS BAD: Northwestern overcame two separate 14-point deficits to force overtime, and then saw Auburn players prematurely rush the field to celebrate victory twice during that period as a would-be-game ending fumble was overturned by replay and a would-be-game ending field goal miss off the post was nullified by a personal foul – but the third time the Tigers rushed the field it would stick, as a fake field goal attempt was rebuffed at the 2-yard line and the Wildcats were denied their first bowl game win in 61 years.
THE SILVER LINING: In any other year, I would have likely endured the misery in person, as my brother lives in Tampa, where the Outback Bowl was played, and could have gotten me tickets – but my sister got married in Los Angeles on that day and so a heartbreaking morning watching in her condo was followed by a happy and welcome more important event later in the day.
Nov. 20, 2010: Illinois 48-NU 27.
WHY IT WAS BAD: ESPN’s College GameDay made its first appearance at a Northwestern game in 15 years, the ‘Cats came in to the penultimate game of the 2010 regular season with a chance to match their highest win total in the post-Gary Barnett era by winning out and Wrigley Field’s first football game in a half-century provided the background for a national audience to be wowed by Northwestern football’s emergence, but instead NU’s student section was kept away from the action by a last minute closing of one end zone, Dan Persa’s absence due to injury proved costly and Mikel Leshoure ran the ‘Cats out of the building.
THE SILVER LINING: Loss aside, the marketing for NU was still great – Brian Peters returned a touchdown to the forbidden end zone before deliriously celebrating fans and the iconic Wrigley sign was painted purple.
Oct. 09, 2010: Purdue 20-NU 17.
WHY IT WAS BAD: A pre-planned fireworks show at Ryan Field still went on after an upset from a team that had lost to Toledo the week before, rubbing salt in a wound as Northwestern dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten.
THE SILVER LINING: After this game, Purdue went back to being Purdon’t while Northwestern at least salvaged another bowl appearance from the season.
Oct. 06, 2012: Penn State 39-NU 28.
WHY IT WAS BAD: Another early Big Ten schedule loss that blemished the record of a team that had gone undefeated in non-conference play, this loss stung primarily because it felt like a rare winnable game in Happy Valley given away by defensive collapse.
THE SILVER LINING: Gator Bowl redemption.
Oct. 20, 2012: Nebraska 29-NU 28.
WHY IT WAS BAD: Budzein’s only miss of the year meant more fourth quarter heartbreak. And because it was at home, that many more ‘Cats fans were fully invested.
THE SILVER LINING: Gator Bowl, bro.
Sept. 17, 2011: Army 21-NU 14.
WHY IT WAS BAD: NU’s Alamo Bowl appearance in 2010, a scrappy overtime loss by an overmatched underdog, was supposed to signal a new era for the program – Northwestern was supposed to be on the upswing and the loss was viewed as a moral victory in which the ‘Cats proved they could play with more pedigreed opponents and were no longer threatened by lesser non-conference foes. Losing to a service academy crushed any such romanticized notions and probably marked the first time some Northwestern fans started to question whether Coach Pat Fitzgerald could take the program to another level, a fan base rift that continues inexplicably even after last year’s breakthrough Gator Bowl win.
THE SILVER LINING: USA! USA!
Nov. 10, 2012: Michigan 38-NU 31 (OT).
WHY IT WAS BAD: Roundtree’s Hail Mary was part three of fourth quarter heartbreak for NU in 2012.
THE SILVER LINING: We’ve been over this: Gator Bowl, brah! (Also, our shot at the conference title was already gone and this loss was more about missing a marquee win opportunity and bowl positioning generally than big picture lusting over what could have been.)
Nov. 02, 2013: Nebraska 27-NU 24
WHY IT WAS BAD: It delivered the gut punch we hadn’t fully appreciated from losing to Minnesota two weeks earlier or from losing to Iowa in overtime the week before. The Minnesota loss might have been more illusion-shattering, but the Nebraska loss was more sudden and surreal. In a game where injuries reduced the ‘Cats to playing sixth-string running back Tim Hanrahan, this loss represents the most "God Hates Chicago" defeat of the year. By the end of it, you just felt bad that a team this injured wasn’t rewarded for trying to battle through.
THE SILVER LINING: Be real – 2013 wasn’t going anywhere better than Houston regardless.
Oct. 19, 2013: Minnesota 20-NU 17
WHY IT WAS BAD: The Ohio State loss two weeks prior was a heartbreakingly close near miss at glory, but the school still represented itself well in an outpouring of pride on national display over how wonderfully Northwestern is so much more than just its football team. The blowout loss in Madison the week after was rough too, but could be written off as an understandable letdown. But a loss to cellar-dwelling Minnesota, which could have been by a significantly worse margin if not for generous officiating, was the point where it became clear the problems with NU’s injury-riddled 2013 team were more than schedule-deep.
THE SILVER LINING: God willing, 2014.
Oct. 21, 2006: Michigan State 41-NU 38.
WHY IT WAS BAD: Michigan State set a record for the largest comeback win in FBS history, stealing a game in which Northwestern had a 38-3 lead.
THE SILVER LINING: Northwestern was a 4-8 team that year and thus didn’t really lose much by dropping the game. Between 2003 and 2007, losses to Duke (really?), Bowling Green (in the Pizza Bowl?!), Hawaii (to prevent us from making a bowl!) and UCLA (after holding a sizeable lead in the Sun Bowl!) were more embarrassing or more costly, but were ultimately less noteworthy because of the size of Sparty’s comeback. Yet, if I’m honest, I don’t remember this game well, whereas I remember others on this list far more painfully because the stakes for NU were higher.
Nov. 27, 2010: Wisconsin 70-NU 23.
WHY IT WAS BAD: The aftermath of the Wrigley Field debacle a week earlier, this game lacked the punch of an unexpected loss or a brutally close finish, but was instead the insult to injury of realizing Evan Watkins was not a remotely comparable substitute for Dan Persa. With Persa out, the Badgers steamrolled NU and sent the ‘Cats to a disappointing TicketCity Bowl berth.
THE SILVER LINING: No ‘Cats fan actually watched all four quarters of this.
Now grieve through the bye week and then onward to avenge Roundtree... !Wildcats vs Cornhuskers coverage