Sometimes, a football game turns on one play.
When Northwestern crushed Illinois on Saturday to win the Land of Lincoln trophy, the Wildcats ran 90 plays on offense, to 50 plays for the Fighting Illini. In a blowout like that, there’s room for error. But for Northwestern, the whole season came down to three plays in three games that resulted in three losses.
And while I should probably be thrilled with a 9-3 season, given that I’m a late-eighties NU alum who remembers marshmallow fights in the stands and tearing down the goal posts after any win at all, I can’t help but feel disappointed. In each of its three losses, the team held a lead in the fourth quarter. Each loss was a game that appeared to be won.
And so, as we await the Big Ten Championship game next weekend, with Wisconsin facing Nebraska, let’s look back at three plays that—as crazy as it sounds—spoiled a perfect season and a shot at a national championship for Northwestern.
#1 — October 6: An Unhappy Turn at Happy Valley
Northwestern came into Happy Valley looking for its first 6-0 start in fifty years. With less than ten minutes to play, the Cats held a 28-17 lead. Penn State had driven the ball into the Northwestern red zone, and faced a fourth-and-four from the six yard-line. In a different situation, Penn State might have brought out the field goal unit, content to cut the NU lead to eight points.
But Penn State’s kicker, Sam Ficken, was a dreadful 3-for-9 in field goal opportunities on the season at that point, and had somehow managed to have an 18-yard attempt blocked by Illinois the previous week. Thus, Penn State decided to go for the first down instead.
Nittany Lion quarterback Matt McGloin threw over the middle and connected with Allen Robinson for a touchdown. Penn State had new life, and they proceeded to add two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to bring Northwestern’s unblemished record to an end. The McGloin-to-Robinson touchdown did not end the game, and it didn’t give them the lead. But it did give them confidence, while rattling the Wildcats into going three-and-out on their next two possessions.
Turning away the Nittany Lions on that fourth-down play and getting the ball back with an eleven-point lead in the fourth quarter would have put the Wildcats in a good position to begin running out the clock. But that didn’t happen.
#2 — October 20: Budzien’s First Miss
From the time that Northwestern released its 2012 schedule, Nebraska’s visit to Ryan Field loomed as the biggest game of the year. It would be the first time that the Cornhuskers and their fans had paid a visit to Evanston since the days of Al Capone. The game sold out months in advance. Predictably, a large percentage of the fans in the stands that day were wearing Nebraska’s scarlet and cream colors. And those fans had reason to be concerned.
Northwestern, which unveiled new black helmets for the occasion, had taken a 28-16 lead over the Cornhuskers with eight-and-a- half minutes left in the fourth quarter. Sound familiar? But Northwestern’s defense couldn’t stop Taylor Martinez, and the offense again went three-and-out in the fourth quarter. Martinez threw two touchdown passes, and Nebraska took a 29-28 lead with just over two minutes left to play.
Nebraska failed on a two-point conversion after their second touchdown, opening the door for a game-winning field goal from Northwestern’s Jeff Budzien, who hadn’t missed all season. It was just a matter of getting into field goal range. After a long completion to Rashad Lawrence, Budzien came on to attempt a 53-yarder, which was considerably longer than his season-best of 44 yards. Still, the Cats had hope.
Watching the kick on television, it looked good to me until the last second. The ball missed to the right, and Nebraska escaped Evanston with a win.
#3 — November 10: Michigan’s Miracle
Coming out of its bye week, Northwestern still had a chance to get to ten wins for the regular season. And there’s no bigger stage in the Big Ten to play on than the Big House in Ann Arbor. Northwestern’s 1995 run to the Rose Bowl began on that field, when Northwestern shocked the Wolverines on the late Matt Hartl’s touchdown catch. The Wildcats still had plenty to play for in this game.
Once again, Northwestern held a lead in the fourth quarter. The lead wasn’t as big as in the Penn State and Nebraska games, but time was on the Wildcats’ side. When Kain Colter converted a first-down run by the nose of the football, it seemed like it was all over. Michigan had no more timeouts. This one, even more than the other two, seemed to be in hand.
But the Wildcats again went three-and-out, and had to punt the ball away with less than 30 seconds left in the game. A short punt, and a good return by Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, gave the Wolverines a smidgen of hope. But they still needed at least 30 yards to have a shot at a game-tying field goal.
With time winding down, Michigan threw the ball down the field for one last gasp. NU defenders should have thrown receiver Roy Roundtree to the turf. If they had, the ensuing penalty would have given Michigan 15 yards. They would have still been out of field goal range. Instead, NU defender Daniel Jones tried to make a play on the ball. He jumped in the air, perhaps a half-second early, and swatted. He made contact. But, somehow, Roundtree stayed with the ball, and made what must be considered the catch of the year in the Big Ten. Michigan stopped the clock and kicked a field goal to send the game into overtime.
You know the rest.
So NU is 9-3, and almost certainly headed to a bowl. Which is great. Really.
But I’ll still be watching Notre Dame against Alabama or Georgia for the national championship and wondering what might have been…