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Column: Expecting Heartbreak

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

I watched Roy Roundtree’s catch from the back of the opposite Michigan endzone. The play happened about 100 yards away from me, so I couldn’t see anything. Instead, I just waited for the roar from the 112,510 fans in attendance.

Really, I shouldn’t have been expecting to hear joy from the crowd — that was a 53-yard throw with Northwestern presumably in prevent defense — and the reasonable part of me told me the ball would drop to the turf. But part of me knew it was coming, because that’s what always happens.

Expect victory, Pat Fitzgerald tells his team. Then why is it that everyone on the sideline — at least those who follow NU — expected failure?

I’m far from a Northwestern fan, and I’ve gotten plenty of grief from students for not cheering for the Wildcats while I’m in college. But I’ve chosen to cover this team objectively, and that’s what I intend to do.

However, in my two seasons in Evanston, I’ve seen enough heartbreaking losses to know what it must feel like. I’ve been a sports fan; I’ve felt heartbreak, even if for different teams. I witnessed it again on the sidelines Saturday afternoon.

It’s often hard to contain your emotions as fans after such a game. Some call for coaches to be fired; others call for players to be benched. Some fans blame curses; some blame the refs. In Northwestern’s case, fans typically chalk up heartbreaking losses to this program being the unluckiest program in college sports.

But to do that would be dangerous — I know Fitzgerald and the players won’t do it. I’ve found that good teams are inherently lucky, because luck is really the wrong term. Sure, Roundtree likely wouldn’t have caught that ball 9 times out of 10, but it was a breakdown in coverage that led to that “luck” being possible. Breakdowns can’t happen — not at that point in the game — because if you play with fire, you get burned. And NU has gotten burned far too often to let that happen.

Fitzgerald often says that games come down to one play, and I typically disagree. In my view, there are always little things NU could have done earlier in the game — for example, cover someone — to avoid such big situations. But this time, that play decided the game. And that fact that these breakdowns keep coming in such big situations is troubling.

This wasn’t a fourth-and-five situation that Michigan pulled out — that happens; you can’t blame the defense for giving that up. The fact that NU couldn’t defend a deep pass properly, when it knew that was Michigan’s only option, is the biggest issue. That should never happen. Ever. Heck, all Daniel Jones had to do was tip the ball down. Or he could have just tackled Roundtree before the ball got there and gotten a 15-yard penalty.

This breakdown, more and any other, was completely unacceptable. When so many happen in succession without one properly defended big play, they all tend to blur together. But this one, we’ll all remember.

“It sucks,” linebacker Damien Proby said.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment, but after the next 24 hours, NU has to “flush it,” as they like to say. Because without learning from these breakdowns, they’re bound to keep happening, just as they have over the past few seasons. Whether it falls on the coaches, the players or the mindset around the program, somebody has to own up to the problem, and somebody has to be responsible for reversing NU’s trend of breaking down in the most critical moments of games.

I’m often skeptical of Fitzgerald’s assessment for seemingly every loss, that being execution (or lack thereof). But in this case, it’s exactly on point. NU needs to find a way to execute in big moments. However, Fitzgerald’s teams have yet to do that, even when the circumstances seem to be in their favor.

The next time Northwestern needs just one stop to win a game, I won’t be expecting a Wildcats win. This program hasn’t given me a reason to expect victory, no matter how much it preaches that motto.

There will be a time when I don’t expect a Hail Mary to dash NU’s remaining hopes of a Big Ten title. And there will be a time when I’m not expecting to hear the roar of the opposing crowd the next time I see the ball fly through the air on such an improbable play.

That time is coming — it has to come eventually — but it’s not today. Hopefully, for I know who love this team so dearly, it gets here sooner rather than later.

One fan base can only take so much heartbreak.