EVANSTON, Ill. — Something had to give.
Michigan (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) was on the verge of losing its fourth out of five games. Northwestern (4-6, 0-6) was trying to avoid its sixth loss in a row. These were two teams that expected to be battling for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game.
Instead, they battled at Ryan Field late Saturday afternoon to avoid yet another week ending in disappointment.
It took fourth down conversions, a controversial last-second field goal and three overtimes, but Northwestern, again, found itself down 27-19 as Michigan’s sideline erupted in celebration after an interception on a desperation throw to the endzone sealed the game.
“The game can be summed up in one phrase: missed opportunities…” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game, “it just didn't seem like it was our day.”
Fitzgerald said he counted seven different times when Northwestern had a chance to intercept Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and all seven times, the ball slipped through defenders’ hands.
And, yet again, Northwestern saw a victory slip through its hands.
"We just haven't made any plays. That's the bottom line. We're there to make a couple of them… and we just didn't make a play,” Fitzgerald said.
Naturally, when one team doesn’t capitalize the other should eventually make that team pay the price. For a while, though, it didn’t seem as if Michigan would as they were down 9-6 with under a minute to go, facing a third and 23 near midfield.
But after Gardner completed a 16-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon to the Northwestern 27—seven yards short of a first down—Michigan rushed its field goal team onto the field with just 11 seconds left and the clock ticking.
The play was a prime example of controlled chaos: players scrambled every which way, the holder slid into position just as Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons began his abbreviated approach towards the football and the ball sailed through the uprights as time expired, sending the game to overtime.
As to how Michigan was able to get the play off in such a short amount of time, Fitzgerald wasn’t quite sure.
"I thought I saw [Gallon] go down on 11 seconds. That's what I saw. I don't know how you can substitute and do that in 11 seconds, but they did. What was explained to me is that [the referees] don't have to allow us an opportunity to substitute our block team onto the field, so they just let them go. I guess that's the rule so tough deal. Tough deal for our guys in our locker room,” Fitzgerald said.
According to the NCAA rulebook, the referees are able to use discretion when deciding whether or not they must allow the defensive team to substitute in end-of-game situations.
Three overtimes later, Michigan was again celebrating in the shadow of the same goal post that Gibbons’ kicked sailed through.
Northwestern hasn’t won a football game since its September 21 win over Maine.
Since then, Northwestern lost twice in overtime, once on a hailmary as time expired, once by three and once in a game where Northwestern led with under six minutes left.
"We've got to stick together,” Fitzgerald said about his team. “They have up until this point; why stop now? You guys have covered us all year. You haven't seen a team that has stopped fighting. I mean, this team has battled its tail off. We've just ended up again a play short for five out of the last six weeks. We didn't play well at Wisconsin and we got what we deserved there, but any break here or there in five out of the last six games ... it's a totally different feeling right now. It's not [what we deserve] and that's reality.”
From where Northwestern has been this season (ranked as high as 16th in the country), no one could foresee a six game losing streak on the horizon.
"It's pretty unbelievable,” kicker Jeff Budzien said. Budzien made all four of his field goal attempts against Michigan. “It's shocking. It's depressing. If you told me we were 4-6 at this point of the year, I would have laughed at you.”
Emotionally, the team continues to say all the right things. Week after week they vow "to improve and get better.” For the first time after this loss, it seemed as if linebacker Damien Proby finally began to show a bit of frustration.
"No one is going to be happy with a loss,” Proby said, “whether this is the first or the sixth, or whatever it’s at now. No one is going to be happy or satisfied with the way we performed and weren't able to get the job done. The emotion across the board right now is unhappiness with ourselves and the way that we performed."
Northwestern has two games left on its schedule: Michigan State at home next week and at Illinois after Thanksgiving. Wins over both the nationally-ranked Spartans and the Illini would make Northwestern bowl-eligible.
“We've got to stay together and obviously our backs are against the wall now to get into the postseason," Fitzgerald said, "so we've got to find a way to get better and improve this week. They all have great attitudes and [will] stick together, so we'll find a way to have our best week."