by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Northwestern remains ever so close to a signature victory. On Saturday, with a national television audience tuned in, a sold-out crowd in attendance and the lights on at Ryan Field, the Wildcats were handed the game on a silver platter, and they turned it away.
Northwestern came out rather limply. Yet, even after the Wildcats posted just one first down by the end of the first quarter, they held a 7-3 lead. At halftime, Northwestern had just five first downs and 107 total yards and led 14-10. The Cornhuskers fumbled three times in the first half on Saturday. One fumble gave Northwestern the ball in the red zone, allowing a stagnant Wildcats offense to finally get on the scoreboard. Another fumble, this one on a 20-yard reception by Kyler Reed, stalled a Nebraska drive that seemed nearly certain to end up in the end zone.
"(We need to) just not turn over the ball," Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "We're killing ourselves. We're the ones that are stopping ourselves, and if we don't stop ourselves, no one in the country can beat us."
It would be unfair to suggest that the Wildcats went an entire game without making a big play. Just the fact that they were in it despite getting out-gained 543-301, including 342-121 through the air, proves otherwise. To score 28 points off of 14 first downs is a fairly miraculous accomplishment.
Surely, Northwestern did have one huge play, on a gutsy call from coach Pat Fitzgerald when he went for it on fourth-and-inches from the Nebraska five-yard line. A field goal would have given the Wildcats an eight-point lead, a lead that Nebraska couldn't steal away with a single touchdown. But Fitzgerald knew that he had to play for the win, so he sent Colter in to run it up the gut. Colter answered with a huge play. After he was pushed back on his initial charge, he regained his footing and charged again for the first down. One play later, Mike Trumpy gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game with his hard-nosed run into the end zone.
"(It was) a simple quarterback sneak," Colter said. "My center, Brandon Vitabile, is going to tell me which way he's going, usually to the tiniest nose guard. I tried to get in there at first, and they kind of stuffed it a little bit. I rolled off to the right and ended up picking up the first down."
After Colter's big play, the Wildcats simply needed to hold a 12-point lead for eight-and-a-half minutes. They were one big stop, one big play away from victory. Or one big pick.
Senior linebacker David Nwabuisi gave Northwestern a chance when he deflected Taylor Martinez's pass across the middle. Two Wildcats looked to snare the deflection; instead, they ran into each other. That left sophomore defensive tackle Sean McEvilly with a beautiful chance. The ball fluttered into his hands and through them.
"That play was just one of those freak things, breaking towards the ball as any defense would do," junior linebacker Damien Proby said. "We would like to have that ball, of course. If I could go back and change it, I would know that he would be there, but you can't leave anything in this game up to chance, so we all got to go for the ball, and that's just what happened on that play."
On the very next play, sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell darted in front of a pass intended for Jamal Turner but couldn't come up with the interception.
"We battled and gave ourselves a chance to win, but down the stretch, we just didn't make that one more play that we needed to make," Fitzgerald said. "Be it two balls that we had our hands on on a drive that led to a touchdown."
Either interception would have given the Wildcats the ball, up 12.
"When you have a chance for a turnover and you miss it, the football gods usually strike you with some lightning, so two on one drive, it's not good. Get a little lightning and thunder," Fitzgerald said. "I thought we were watching the Cats play volleyball. We were passing it back and forth. If we catch the ball, it's a different deal. And then (Campbell's) play would have been spectacular. He had a great break, but against their offense, that's what you got to do. You got to steal those possessions and we were unable to do that."
Proby said that the defense wasn't demoralized by the two dropped interception opportunities.
"I would never call being there or being around the ball to make a play demoralizing," Proby said. "We just know that we're there. Those plays will land for us. If we keep focus and keep practicing the way that we have been practicing and the way that we continue to, those balls will fall in our laps. That's something that you can't be mad about if that person was on the top of the ball at any given point in the game."
The Wildcats still had another chance to get off of the field, following their two blown shots at an interception. After all, Nebraska still faced a third-and-ten. But then, Northwestern inexplicably allowed Kyler Reed to get wide-open for a 16-yard grab for the first down. He ended up completing four straight passes, including a 30-yard laser over the middle of the field to Quincy Enunwa that put the Cornhuskers in the red zone. Ultimately, Martinez placed the finishing touches on the drive with a lob to Taariq Allen that put the Cornhuskers within five.
"On the last few drives, they just made plays and we didn't," Proby said. "There's nothing more that needs to be said there. We were there on top of every route."
In the fourth quarter, Taylor Martinez owned the middle of the field. First, there was a 31-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa over the middle of the field. There was a defender near Enunwa but Enunwa was the only one who went up for the ball and so he was able to make the uncontested grab. The Wildcats also allowed Nebraska to escape a third-and-three, when Martinez found Enunwa along the right sideline for a first down. Martinez ultimately went 5-for-5 on the drive, including a 25-yard pass to Jamal Turner over the middle of the field to put Nebraska seven yards away from the lead. A seven-yard touchdown pass to Ben Cotton put the Cornhuskers up one.
"We felt like if we could tackle well and keep the ball inside and in front of us, we would win the game," Fitzgerald said."For about three-and-a-half quarters, we did that, and then for two drives, we didn't, and that's the difference in the game."
Finally, the Wildcats looked to their kicker, junior Jeff Budzien, who had been perfect on the season, to give them a two-point lead. One kick from Budzien could have allowed Northwestern to escape all of its sins. His kick from 53 yards out was a beauty, but it twisted wide right.
"It just went a little bit wide right," Fitzgerald said. "He had plenty of leg."
Fitzgerald insisted Saturday that there were no psychological barriers standing in the Wildcats' way. And yet, Northwestern continues to lose big game after big game in heartbreaking fashion, whether it was in Champaign last year, Happy Valley a couple of weeks ago or at Ryan Field tonight.
"I don't think it has anything to do psychologically because a week ago we went out on a two-minute drill and our defense pushed the offense back three times," Fitzgerald said. "I just think we have got to make some plays. It's the name of this game. We're right there and it looked like we lost our leverage. That's what it looked like to me. There were four pass plays there that we're in position but we're in outside leverage and we should be inside leverage. We have to look at why."
Perhaps Fitzgerald put it most eloquently at the end of his opening statement to the press.
"It was a heck of a battle," Fitzgerald said. "We just ended up one play short."