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November 2, 2013

Hail Mary loss devastates Northwestern



LINCOLN-Losses like the one Northwestern experienced on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium aren't ones that can be properly described by the lights up on the scoreboard.

The 27-24 Nebraska win is measured less by points, yards and turnovers than by the heartbreak that was clearly visible on the faces of Northwestern players like Tyler Scott.

"We've been in these battles all the time and we know they can go either way," Scott said. "Everybody gave it all and I'm proud of my guys and my teammates and everybody left it out there.

"It's a hard one when you lose a game like that."

More than 30 minutes after Jordan Westerkamp caught a tipped 49-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game and stole a win from Northwestern, Scott struggled to find words to describe the loss as he sat alone in front of the media. The senior, normally among the more composed players on this Northwestern squad, seemed to be on the verge of tears.

The same can be said for running back Treyvon Green, who stole the show on Saturday with 149 yards, three touchdowns and a gritty return from an injury suffered during the game. After the last-second, gut-wrenching, Hail Mary-loss, though, focusing on the positives can be tough.

"Honestly, I just -- there are no words to describe it, honestly," Green said. "It happened so fast, and you'd think that'd be the last thing to happen on that play."

That's when moving on from a loss goes from onerous to damn near impossible. In the midst of a five-game losing streak, one which has tested the team's temperament and resolve, this game stings more than the other four. And no matter how he may try to lessen the pain his team feels, Pat Fitzgerald's words can only do so much.

"With a loss like this, there's not much he can say to us," Green said.

Fitzgerald, however, tried anyway. He told his team -- which played its best football game in a month -- just how proud he was of its effort.

"To see the way they battled was just absolutely amazing," Fitzgerald said. "… I told 'em that I'm proud as heck of their fight."

That's not to say Fitzgerald made excuses for the loss, because he did not. He lamented on a series of mistakes that allowed Nebraska to convert a fourth-and-15 and to throw up a bomb on the final snap. For a team that practices two-minute situations every Thursday, that wasn't a mistake he deemed acceptable.

"We have guys on guys, and then you can never let somebody get behind a pile," said Fitzgerald of his team's defensive method.

Perhaps that's what makes the loss so devastating: it's one the team knows should never have happened.

A blowout loss to Wisconsin? Northwestern got outplayed. Close loss to Minnesota? No Kain Colter. Overtime defeat to Iowa? Untimely penalties and fumbles.

On Saturday, however, it's not so easy to find a turning point. Sure, Trevor Siemian threw a pick-6 and the offense failed to score on 11 consecutive drives, but Northwestern's offense regained the spark it was missing and ran for 245 yards and three touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, the defense picked off four passes, which led to 10 points for the Cats.

For the first time in weeks, Northwestern probably deserved to win. And the Cats still lost.

That's when coaches start questioning every decision.

"Maybe I shoulda done something different," Fitzgerald said.

That's when players collapse onto the turf and struggle afterward to piece together what went wrong.

"It's pretty quiet [in the locker room]," Green said. "A lot of people just want to be alone in this moment."

And that's when an 0-5 conference record gets even more arduous to process mentally.

"It's a tough deal," Fitzgerald said. "I feel for our guys."

With a bye week up next for the team, this one might linger a bit -- though Northwestern could certainly use a week off to get healthier. The Cats must win two of their final three games to become bowl eligible, and Saturday's missed opportunity in Lincoln could very likely keep the team from going bowling.

When the coaching staff and players look back at the film, they'll see just how close they were to a win. They'll see the missed tackles on the fourth-down conversion and the missed opportunity to score a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, when they had a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The busted passing plays and coverages will both become clearer.

The film will show Northwestern exactly what went wrong.

But it can't even begin to explain how much this one hurts.



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