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November 17, 2013

NU finding creative new ways to lose


EVANSTON-You have to give Northwestern credit for one thing in this train wreck of a 2013 season: they are creative.

What other team could find a way to get beat on the last play two games in a row?

Just one game after allowing a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to lose on the last play of the game at Nebraska, Michigan flawlessly performed a Chinese fire drill to tie the game on the final snap.

The Wolverines somehow got their offense off the field and field goal unit on it in less than 12 seconds, and Brendan Gibbons drilled a 44-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime. There, as has become their custom, the Wildcats ultimately lost, 27-19, in the third extra period, to extend their losing streak to six games.

The season is to the point now that writers need to go to the thesaurus to come up with new and better ways to describe the emotional toll of the losses. If the Nebraska defeat was heartbreaking and devastating, what do you call Saturday's loss to Michigan? How about soul crushing and demoralizing? Gut wrenching and eviscerating?

The losing streak has reached epic proportions. It matches the Wildcats' longest since a six-game slide in 2006, head coach Pat Fitzgerald's first season, when the team finished 4-8. You have to go all the way back to 1998 to find one longer. That's also the last time a Northwestern team went winless in the conference -- a feat that this squad is now two setbacks away from repeating.

And this came in a year when Northwestern was ranked in the preseason Top 25 and expected to contend for the Legends division, if not Big Ten title. Heck, it came seven weeks after the Wildcats were 4-0, ranked 16th and almost knocked off the No. 4 team in the country.

In other words, it's doubtful that you'll see Fitzgerald's name on any coaching hot lists after the season.

Northwestern's last two losses have defied belief, but all six have had their own personality. Maybe the Wildcats' marketing department could come up with a catchy label for each of the Wildcats' losses:

Ohio State, The Back Slapper: This 40-30 game hung in the balance until Kain Colter fell inches short on fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter. Sure, the Wildcats lost, but everyone from coast-to-coast seemed to be singing their praises. The media decided that NU, despite the loss, had indeed arrived and would be a player in the Big Ten. Wrong.

Wisconsin, The Beatdown: The Badgers were the only team during the streak to take these Wildcats out to the woodshed in a 35-6 rout. If the other losses were daggers to the heart, this one was heavy blunt force trauma. Wisconsin completely shut down NU's suddenly anemic offense, and its defensive game plan became the blueprint for the teams remaining on the schedule to do the same.

Minnesota, The Giveaway: The home loss to Minnesota was the most surprising of the bunch and the one that signaled to Wildcat fans that something wicked this way comes. Northwestern gift wrapped this one, losing the turnover battle 3-0 and giving the Gophers 10 points in a 20-17 setback. Northwestern's already flickering hopes for a Legends division crown were snuffed out permanently.

Iowa, The Ray of Hope: The Wildcats lost on the road, 17-10, in overtime. It was a painful loss, but there were glimmers of optimism: Colter returned to the lineup, the offense moved the ball for the first time in three weeks and the Wildcats fought back from a 10-point second half deficit to tie the game before ultimately falling.

Nebraska, The Are You Kidding Me? The Wildcats had this one in the bag, holding a three-point lead with four seconds left and Nebraska at midfield, when Ron Kellogg dropped back and hurled a 49-yard prayer that got tipped by a NU defensive back and…well, you saw what happened. If you missed it, Google "Nebraska Hail Mary YouTube" and 17 videos will pop up, some in slow motion to give the knife time to twist.

Michigan, The Replay: Not only did Saturday's loss mark the second straight game in which victory was snatched from the Wildcats on the last play, but it also came one year after Michigan kicked a field goal with two seconds left to force overtime in another incredible NU loss. And that last-gasp field goal in 2012 was set up by -- you guessed it -- a 53-yard Hail Mary with 18 seconds left that bounced off an NU defender's hands.

If a screenwriter penned a movie about these 2013 Cats, Saturday's game may have crossed the project over from a tearjerker to a comedy -- and also caused the executive producer to laugh the writer out of the room for submitting so far-fetched a plot.

The game itself was a showcase of inept offense, with both teams failing to get into the end zone in 60 minutes. Fitzgerald said his team dropped seven potential interceptions. Northwestern's Brandon Williams shanked a 7-yard punt to give Michigan the ball at the NU 10-yard line, but the Wolverines ran three plays, lost a yard and had to settle for a field goal.

Michigan went an unheard of 0-for-13 on third downs in regulation but somehow converted two fourth downs on its final drive to set up the Keystone Kops field goal. The holder even slipped on the wet grass and fell just moments before the snap, but he still managed to slide into position.

Several observers contended after the game that not all of Michigan's players were set before the snap. Whether or not that's true, give the Wolverines credit for what was, by far, the best executed play of the game.

At that point, it seemed like a Northwestern loss was a foregone conclusion. It's hard to put a deflating final play like that in the rearview mirror when you just saw one the week before.

Northwestern players and fans at this point must be wondering what they did to tick off the football gods, but an end to the madness may be on its way. Next week, the 9-1, Legends division-leading Michigan State Spartans come to town with the No. 1 defense in the country.

Northwestern will almost surely lose to extend the death spiral to seven games, but it's doubtful that the contest will come down to the final play.

That in itself may bring some relief to Wildcat fans.



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