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Northwestern doesn't lose because of a few big plays

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Time and time again, Northwestern's games come down to just a play or two. That, frankly, shouldn't be the case.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The game played out as many would have expected.

Two solid defenses, two somewhat sputtering offenses and two teams that might be contenders for the Big Ten West crown combined for a game that ended in a 24-17 win for the Golden Gophers.

So, in the end, what separated Northwestern and Minnesota? What gave the Gophers the edge over the Wildcats and the inside track to challenge Nebraska as the division's representative in Indianapolis?

In head coach Pat Fitzgerald's words, it was the "one plays."

It seems like an all-too-often-used refrain for Northwestern, almost like an excuse.

"That's what I'm talking about, the one plays. We had a lot of one plays. Maybe double-digits, 10-15. I'm not trying to take away from Minnesota's effort but we gave it to them," he said after the game.

He mentioned Minnesota's kickoff return for a touchdown that gave the Gophers the lead late in the fourth quarter and he mentioned Kyle Prater's drop that pretty much sealed Northwestern's loss.

"Sometimes we played well enough to win and other times we shot ourselves in the foot," Justin Jackson said as he reminisced about the game. "Kind of what happened with us early in the season. We had corrected that and we obviously digressed this game."

Jackson in particular talked about how those big plays come down to one-on-one matchups. He said that he expected Northwestern to win those against Minnesota and that he expects Northwestern to win them going forward. So why is it that Northwestern keeps losing the one-on-one battles that the players themselves expect to win? Why do all of Northwestern's games seem to hinge on a few plays?

Truth is, they don't.

"It's one play," Trevor Siemian said in reference to Prater's drop. "There's plenty of plays all over the place that could have gotten ourselves out of that situation."

No consistently successful team can rely on making the one or two plays in a game that may determine the outcome. It seems like Northwestern has settled on just keeping games close enough to get to the point where, for some reason or another, the play comes out in the team's favor.

Even in games Northwestern wins, it seems like the coaches are content with just sustaining a lead and not growing it. And in most of those wins, the game will still come down to a play or two that just happens to go Northwestern's way.
A team can't expect to be continually good and rely on luck to determine the outcomes of games and that, yet again, was proved Saturday.