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Where are we Wednesday: Pat Fitzgerald, the master of close games?

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In which we compare Fitz to a historical figure from World War I.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, you may have watched Texas A&M blow a 34-point lead to UCLA. It was an incredible comeback. You have to give credit the Bruins. Josh Rosen was immaculate in leading his team through five touchdown drives. Texas A&M got incredibly unlucky (the missed interception-to-touchdown and the fake spike which was bobbled come to mind).

However, in my highly unoriginal opinion, the Aggies were also coached poorly. It’s impossible to blow a 34-point lead without a complete implosion from the coaching staff. After starting quarterback Nick Starkel went down, head coach Kevin Sumlin turned to Kellen Mond, a true freshman, leaving veteran Jake Hubenak on the bench. I understand his reasoning, as Mond is probably Texas A&M’s future. But Texas A&M put him in to close out the game despite an inaccurate, unproven arm. To compound the situation, the play calls from the sidelines repeatedly called for Mond to throw the ball downfield.

Sure, with UCLA stacking the box, throwing deep may have been a good, aggressive call. But how do you expect to complete any of these passes with a freshman quarterback who was thrown into the fire mid-game? There were also a couple moments in which the inexperienced Mond failed to avoid taking disastrous sacks, one of which pushed a potentially game-icing field goal back by 12 yards. Hubenak was on the bench watching the catastrophe unfold.

It boggles the mind. A Reddit user pointed out that Texas A&M would’ve left UCLA with less time had they just kneeled on every single play. It was a really bizarre coaching day for Kevin Sumlin and his crew, and Texas A&M’s fans were, rightly, infuriated.

But Kevin Sumlin did not coach the greatest blown lead in FBS history. That honor belongs to Pat Fitzgerald.


For those who don’t know, in 2006, Northwestern blew a 35-point lead to Michigan State at Ryan Field. I need not go into the details. Like Texas A&M, the Atlanta Falcons, and Dominic Thiem on Sunday, Northwestern should’ve won the game at about seven different moments. It didn’t happen.

Every Northwestern fan who watched a 38-3 third quarter lead evaporate felt what the Aggie faithful are feeling now. How could this happen? How could our coach be that stupid? Northwestern fell to 2-6 in the first eight games of the Pat Fitzgerald era after that 41-38 loss to Michigan State. Given the tragic beginning to the season and the complete lack of hope, this may have been the lowest moment for Northwestern football since the 1995 Rose Bowl season. In the circumstances of the game, it was certainly a bigger choke than anything Texas A&M did on Sunday.

After that catastrophe, you wouldn’t blame some Wildcat fans from never trusting Pat Fitzgerald in a close game ever again. But those fans would’ve been utterly incorrect. Over the ensuing decade, Pat Fitzgerald has compiled a 36-24 record in one possession games. And remember, he’s not coaching Alabama, he’s coaching Northwestern! Fitz has mastered the art of squeezing out close victories. Sure, there are screwups (see Western Michigan and Illinois State last year), but overall, Fitzgerald and his staff are above average in close games. Bill Connelly at Football Study Hall said last year that Pat Fitzgerald is in the 97th percentile of coaches who “overachieve” their expected wins per season. You only reach the 97th percentile by being really good at winning tight games.

It happened again last Saturday against Nevada. Let’s be honest, Northwestern escaped this matchup with a win. The Wildcats played far below their potential. If Nevada had not run a baffling backup quarterback option draw on a key fourth and 1, we could be disappointed as Aggie fans. Nevada straight-up outplayed Northwestern in the first half. It was all set up for a huge letdown.

But it didn’t happen, and for that, we have to give credit to the entire team. We’ve already written about how Clayton Thorson was amazing, how Northwestern’s defense stepped up in the second half, and how receivers like Bennett Skowronek and Macan Wilson came up huge in tight situations. But we haven’t discussed the coaching staff, the one consistent factor throughout all of Pat Fitzgerald’s stunning array of close victories.

Last year, everybody, from Inside NU to the Chicago Tribune, ripped on Northwestern’s coaching continuity after a terrible start to the season. And yes, after that loss to Nebraska, these were ostensibly correct takes, echoed throughout the fanbase. They started to surface again as the offense and defensive line bungled its way through the first half.

Yes, the playcalling in the first half was questionable. Yes, I agree that Northwestern’s coaching staff will have a lot of questions to answer against Duke this weekend. But somehow, Pat Fitzgerald and his erstwhile group of coaches keep escaping bad situations. They salvaged a 1-3 start to last season with road wins over Michigan State and Iowa and a close bowl victory over Pitt. They took a kinda bad 2015 team and miraculously won 10 games. They even salvaged a 5-7 season with a ridiculous upset over Notre Dame. They keep getting away with their bullshit, and while it’s endlessly infuriating to us fans, there’s nothing we can do.

The best way I can describe this phenomenon is through comparing Pat Fitzgerald to Joseph Joffre, the French commander at the start of World War I. Joseph Joffre was no military genius. He didn’t have any strategic masterstrokes like his German counterparts. At the beginning of World War I, he was completely outmaneuvered and spent weeks retreating in disarray.

But Joffre’s greatest skill as a general was his ability to remain calm under pressure and the loyalty he inspired amongst his men. Sound familiar? When the chips were down in August of 1914 as German armies threatened to swarm through Paris, Joffre was a different guy. He was aggressive. He listened to good advice and made the right gambles. He adjusted when everything was completely against him, and it worked out. Meanwhile, Joffre’s opponents made mistakes under pressure.

Likewise, Northwestern did what it needed to do with the game on the line on Saturday. Northwestern made three fourth down conversions, two clutch touchdown drives, and an incredibly gutsy passing play on third and seven that iced the game. And hey, it worked out. Huge props to Fitz and McCall for having the guts to repeatedly go for the game. Heck, it marks a significant improvement from last year’s Ohio State’s game, in which Northwestern probably was too conservative in a close loss. In another gutsy move, he also burned nine redshirts against Nevada, a completely uncharacteristic move for the Wildcats, who’d never burned more than six in a whole season under Fitz. Every year, Fitz is adjusting, and you have to give him some credit for that.

However, that close game brilliance does not work every time. If Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald could, you know, blow out a team every once in a while, we wouldn’t have to write these hot takes. Northwestern also has a disturbing habit of playing close games against teams they are objectively better than and getting blown out by teams that are better than Northwestern. But sometimes, you just have to give Fitzgerald, Mike Hankwitz, and Mick McCall some credit for surviving. When they don’t survive, it’s fair to bury everybody. Yet over the past decade, Fitz and his staff continuity have made a habit of escaping. He’s gotten better at dealing with late-game situations and better at making correct fourth-down calls. I guarantee that if you gave Fitz a 35-point lead over Michigan State in 2017, he would have the answers this time around.

So we’re the “Cardiac Cats” for a reason. No matter how much we shake our fists on Twitter and in comment sections, we’re in no position to change what we see on the field. So buckle in folks, Northwestern football is at it again.

(Please don’t blame me when they go 1-4 in one possession games this year.)