Two months after breaking the well-documented bowl drought, Northwestern entered spring with "5:03" emblazoned on its workout shirts. Pat Fitzgerald said it represented the amount of time that separated NU from an undefeated 2012 season; today the whole "late-game failure" part feels even fresher.
The rhetoric charms the masses in March, with everyone itching for days like this: Ones when NU could finally earn that elusive major victory. Because although the 10-win season was an impressive milestone, the slate included no true statement wins. At Syracuse? At Michigan State? Mississippi State? None of these qualify, except for the third, if you love symbolism and hate stuffed monkeys.
On days like these, the numbers five-oh-three are more memorable. We remember when the defense faded against Penn State, when Taylor Martinez had his late-game field day and, of course, Gardner-to-Roundtree for 53 yards.
Add "The Sneak." Down by four, NU faced fourth-and-one from the Ohio State 34-yard line, with less than three minutes remaining. Instead of leaning on execution–which helped the Wildcats offense control much of the game-they dialed up an embarrassment. A copout.
Colter fumbled the ball (which happens when you rush through a high-pressure sneak) and recovered it before being stopped short of the first-down marker. Fitzgerald challenged the play, which he needed to win, and the call "stood." He then complained about the "Call Stands" ruling.
They could have run a creative read option. They could have pulled some surprise play action and continue to dominate through the air. Instead, the Wildcats left their fate to "Call Stands," and an outcome that seemed wrong.
I watched the student section grimly realize that there wasn't enough time to come back, counting the seconds until they all ran out. And it felt to them, I'm sure, worse than a wistful wardrobe concept.
Northwestern outplayed Ohio State on Saturday night. Tyler Scott played like an All-American. Will Hampton filled in admirably at defensive tackle. Both quarterbacks exposed the OSU secondary as fraud and found Rashad Lawrence—who had the best single game performance of any NU player this season. With each year, the talent gap decreases. With each year, though, the close losses grow more and more inexplicable.
They had us fooled again. Up 23-13 midway through the second quarter, NU forced a fumble to regain possession. The student section–absolutely incredible on Saturday–sounded like a Blackhawks playoff crowd. At that point, you could have said with honesty: I think they're going to win.
They didn't. Fitzgerald, classy as always, seemed relentlessly positive in his postgame press conference. Sure, NU will have many more opportunities for that "big-time" victory, beginning next week at Wisconsin.
In the wake of Saturday's game, many fans are hopeful that NU-OSU can have their rematch in the Big Ten Championship. How can we trust the Wildcats to get there? In big games, they are unsure. In big games, they cannot close the deal.
Usually, the painful losses feel familiar. With each year and each failed opportunity, they just start feeling uncomfortable.
Here's the four-word summary: They blew it again.