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November 16, 2013

Missed opportunities plague NU defense


EVANSTON-Most viewers who endured Northwestern's ugly 27-19 loss to Michigan will be left with the image of Brendan Gibbons' last-gasp 44-yard field goal that tied the game with triple zeroes on the clock at the end of regulation.

For Pat Fitzgerald, however, the frustration piled on more gradually. Rather than one back-breaking play, he looked at repeated mistakes throughout the game as the reason for the loss.

"It can be summed up in kind of one phrase: missed opportunities," he said. "We had our hand on the ball a lot as a defense all the way down there to the end.

"It just didn't seem like it was our day."

That may have been the best way to put it. Through four quarters, the Cats held Michigan to 302 yards and nine points. Yes, that kind of performance should've been enough to win. But even so, there were countless chances missed that could've pushed the Wolverines closer and closer to the brink.

It started with one throw early in the game when Michigan was driving into NU territory. Quarterback Devin Gardner chucked a pass over the middle, failing to see linebacker Damien Proby standing between him and his target. The pass went right into Proby's gloves, but bounced right off of them. It was a chance to build momentum, start a drive and put the pressure on the visitors.

It was also the start of a trend. Chi Chi Ariguzo, Nick VanHoose, Ibraheim Campbell and Matthew Harris all had Gardner passes hit them in the hands but failed to come up with the picks. Gardner repeatedly failed to look off defenders and his passes repeatedly went right into the hands of the Wildcat defenders, but each time, they ended up on the ground.

Fitzgerald said afterward that he thought he saw seven of them. To him, they were seven wasted chances to make a play and seven chances to win the game. The Wolverines tied the game with no time left on the clock, so if any one of NU's defenders had managed to hang onto any one of the passes, chances are the Wildcats would have come away with a streak-busting victory.

"As a defense, we understand that we need to make those plays," Proby said, "but we also understand the concept that it is a full-length game, that we have to flush it and move on."

It's tough to move on when you think of what could have been. Ariguzo stepped in front of a short pass to the flat with nothing but daylight in front of him, but he couldn't reel it in. What might have been the only touchdown of the day ended up being forgotten shortly afterward in a game that had as many momentum-swinging plays as mistakes.

Fitzgerald didn't forget them, though. The Cats had 14 interceptions coming into Saturday's matchup, and they certainly should have left with more. An otherwise impressive defensive performance - Michigan was 0-for-13 on third downs in regulation -- was overshadowed by a scattered array of missed opportunities.

But that's what happens when it's just not your day. Or, it appears, your season.

And Fitzgerald couldn't offer much more of a reason than that. Like much of this six-game losing streak, it's just tough to comprehend.

"How do I explain it?" he asked. "I don't."



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