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Déjà Vu: Heartbreak stings just as much the second time

Missed opportunities were the name of the game.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

On Sep. 18, 2021, Northwestern fell behind three touchdowns early to Duke in Durham, N.C.. The ‘Cats, led by a surging Andrew Marty, powered back to get close, but ultimately the early deficit was too much to overcome and Duke prevailed, 30-23.

A year later, the Wildcats found themselves in a similar problem in their 31-23 loss to the Blue Devils. Jim O’Neil’s defense allowed Duke to move the ball like it was the greatest show on turf, while Mike Bajakian’s offense stalled on two of the first three drives. Northwestern escaped their own territory just once before the ‘Cats were down 21-0, but that chance ended in a missed 38-yard field goal from Adam Stage.

Once it was already in the hole, the defense seemed to tighten up, forcing consecutive three-and-outs. The offense managed three trips inside the Duke 35 to end the half, but only came away with 10 points after a turnover on downs and field goal to end the half.

However, the defense’s success in the late second quarter did not continue to open the second half. The Blue Devils drove right down the field, seemingly destined for a touchdown until a miraculous bobbling interception by Garnett Hollis Jr. gave the ‘Cats the ball back. It was in vain, though, as a strip sack on Ryan Hilinski in enemy territory ended the drive in its tracks. The next drive, after a Duke missed field goal, Hilinski hit Hull on a 4th-and-2 screen that the RB took to the house, making it 21-16.

Then, Bajakian got greedy. With nearly 17 minutes left to go in the game, the ‘Cats went for two, an intercepted roll-out that led to no points.

I know analytics-obsessed fans will strongly disagree with me on this one, but I am a firm believer that you should NEVER go for two unless you absolutely need to. I believe in always assuming that you will miss the conversion, a typically safe bet as a fan of Northwestern and the Washington Commanders. If Duke had kicked a field goal while up four (assuming NU kicked the extra point), a touchdown from Northwestern would’ve tied it, whereas with a miss, the ‘Cats would’ve needed a touchdown AND two-point conversion just to tie it. While it didn’t come back to bite Northwestern, the decision certainly would’ve if Hull had gotten into the end zone at the end of the game. People may bring up the shakiness at kicker as playing a factor, but Stage is 6-of-6 on extra points this year, while he’s struggled from distance.

Whether it’s karma, bad luck, or whatever, the ‘Cats got hit with it on the ensuing drive when Jalon Calhoun took a tipped pass 51 yards on third down. Duke then scored to go up 12, and the ‘Cats consequently turned it over on downs. Two drives later, Northwestern reignited all hope with an 80-yard, 1:55-long drive that ended in a Donny Navarro III touchdown. A Duke three-and-out gave Northwestern the perfect opportunity to prove that this season would not be like the last and that the Wildcats were legitimate, but a third-down throw behind Malik Washington that was picked off by the Blue Devils shut that idea down before it could begin.

Nonetheless, the defense bent but didn’t break, and Northwestern had one last chance at an equalizer. With 1:18 left, Hilinski led a masterful two-minute drill with no timeouts consisting of completions to Washington, Hull, Thomas Gordon and Navarro. On third-and-1, Bajakian dialed up his final masterpiece, calling a draw to Hull when Duke was nowhere near expecting it. With nothing but space in front of him, Hull dove for the end zone before Duke DB Jaylen Stinson put his helmet right on the ball, forcing a fumble at the goal line.

The feeling of heartbreak is all too familiar for Northwestern fans. In the past year alone, the men’s basketball team has collapsed for countless losses in which they’ve had leads. The women’s lacrosse team gave up eight straight goals in the final nine minutes to lose in the NCAA Final Four and the softball team struck out with the bases loaded in its last game of the Women’s College World Series.

But as the football game on Saturday unraveled, it reminded fans of a pain they’d known before. It was the soul-crushing feeling of hopelessness replaced with blind optimism, and then ripped from the clutches of the Wildcat faithful. Northwestern fans watched as their team squandered opportunity after opportunity, culminating in the goal line fumble that perfectly encapsulated the heartbreak of a modern-day sports fan.

You can’t blame Evan Hull, by virtue of his late fumble, for the loss. Northwestern would not have even been in the position to win the game without him. In a game in which the offensive line had no push and the receiving core had no separation, Hull was the brightest star on the field, totaling 278 yards and two scores on 31 touches. He put the team on his back, and it’s incredibly unfortunate that Stinson put his helmet right on the ball to make an incredible play. Hull played his heart out, and showed just how valuable he is to the Wildcats.

Even Hilinski played fairly well himself. There’s no reason he needed to throw 60 times, but the deficit required it and Hilinski delivered, completing 60% of his passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns. Hilinski was also responsible for a fumble and an interception. There are certainly some throws he would like to have back, but for the most part, Hilinski played adequately and helped keep the Wildcats in the game.

The game was a tale of missed opportunities. Northwestern was just 5-for-17 on third downs, and missed two of six fourth downs deep in enemy territory. The Wildcats consistently found themselves on the opposing side of the field, ending nine drives on Duke’s side of the field with 23 points. That includes three second-half turnovers, two turnovers on downs and the missed field goal. As Pat Fitzgerald said after the game, the team thrives in one-score games, but it can’t spot a team three early touchdowns and expect itself to climb out of the hole.

The season is far from over for Northwestern. Even the 2018 team lost to both Duke and Akron, and the Big Ten West is far from set in stone. There is plenty of time for the ‘Cats to pick up momentum, and more than enough time to shore up the issues plaguing the team. If Saturday’s matchup against Duke showed us anything, it’s that while this team has a lot it needs to fix, Northwestern is never going to quit.