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November 10, 2012After squandering fourth-quarter leads in its only two losses of the season, Northwestern had finally come from behind in the final period and was poised to pull off an upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
With just 18 seconds left, the Wildcats were leading, 31-28. Devin Gardner brought Michigan to the line of scrimmage at his own 38-yard line, with no timeouts left.
Finally, after a season of late-game disappointments, Charlie Brown was going to kick the ball.
Quite a few things had gone Northwestern's way to get to that point, showing signs that the team's fourth-quarter meltdowns had finally come to an end.
Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian had come off the bench to throw a perfect 15-yard touchdown strike to Tony Jones to take the three-point lead with 3:59 left.
Then, in an ironic turn that was worthy of a Disney movie, the much maligned and often victimized Demetrius Dugar picked off Gardner's pass on the very next snap to give the Wildcats the ball back.
They wound up going for it on a fourth-and-1 play at the Michigan 41-yard line, and Kain Colter, who had been helped off the field with an obviously painful ankle injury just minutes before, called his own number and made it by what appeared to be a single blade of FieldTurf. It was so close that the referee had to look at the measurement twice before signaling first down.
The Wildcats were able to milk the clock for four more plays before punting. Even after Brandon Williams's line-drive, rugby punt was returned 23 yards by Jeremy Gallon, it seemed as though, barring catastrophe, it was too little time for the Wolverines to mount a comeback.
That's precisely when catastrophe struck.
Gardner dropped back and heaved the ball long and straight. Fifty-three yards downfield, Ray Roundtree found himself one-on-one with Northwestern's Daniel Jones in the middle of the field -- despite the fact that the Wildcats had rushed only three and dropped eight defenders into coverage.
Both players went up for the ball. Jones actually outleaped Roundtree by a slight margin and got his hand on the ball to deflect it. But instead of getting slapped to the turf or to the left or right, the ball bounced up slightly, and Roundtree was able to corral it against his right shoulder pad at the 8-yard line before dropping to his knees.
Two plays later, Brendan Gibbons hit a 26-yard field goal to tie the game.
Five overtime plays after that, Michigan took a 38-31 lead on a Gardner 1-yard touchdown run.
Four overtimes plays after that, Tyris Jones was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Michigan 17.
And just like that, Northwestern had endured another epic fourth-quarter collapse, yet again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Up to that point, there had been several outstanding performances worth celebrating in the post-game press conference.
The Wildcats amassed 431 yards of offense against Michigan, tied with Alabama for the most allowed all season by a Wolverine defense that was ranked seventh in the country going into the game.
Venric Mark rushed for 104 hard-earned yards and a touchdown, and also had a 96-yard kickoff return TD called back because of holding.
Colter threw for 96 yards and ran for 82.
Siemian had been a stone-cold killer in crunch time, finishing 6-of-7 for 82 yards and two touchdowns after coming in to lead TD drives at the end of the first half and in the fourth quarter.
Yet all those heroics were pretty much wiped away by one desperate pass.
Observers have to start wondering when these painful losses cease to be lessons for a young team learning how to win and start to become self-fulfilling prophecies that begin to wear on a squad's psyche. After all, fourth-quarter failures have become almost routine for the Wildcats, whether the team wins or loses.
Northwestern has been outscored in the final quarter in all three of its losses, as well as in wins over Syracuse, Indiana and Iowa. On the season, the Wildcats have outscored teams in the first (72-35), second (89-45) and third (89-72) quarters, but are on the short end of an 80-55 margin in the fourth.
The answer to that larger question will come later. For now, the Michigan loss is just another what-might-have-been in a season of what-ifs.