Iowa CITY— Pat Fitzgerald
stumbled into the ideal situation: With just less than one minute remaining–and two timeouts in his pocket–Northwestern
’s head coach could will his team to another Fitzgerald-esque comeback.
In the perfect miniature of today’s game, the defense had just made an improbable and necessary stop. After Iowa offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten hauled in a tipped pass, the Hawkeyes faced 4th-and-11 from the NU 35-yard line — outside of kicker Mike Meyer’s range.
Fitzgerald inexplicably decided not to burn his timeouts, drawing the ESPN Big Ten twitter account to label it “one of the worst coaching decisions I’ve ever seen.” Fitz later called it a catch-22, which made no sense, and it didn’t matter because the Wildcats’ ugly season just became exponentially worse.
The clock ticked down to fifteen seconds. Chi Chi Ariguzo intercepted Jake Rudock to force overtime, but overtime meant loss — Northwestern’s fourth straight.
Fitzgerald had an opportunity to stare at his team, to express his belief in them, to know that prized quarterback Kain Colter might just have the ability to drive 30 yards in 40 seconds–or however long–to set up Jeff Budzien for the game-winner.
They were 0-3, right? What did they have to lose? Sadly, it seems like everything. In trying to salvage its season, Northwestern looks more terrified than ever. Despite the hard-nosed, intense play from its defense, the offense is continually under heat for recent poor performances.
Yet there was life, at long last, the spark that could have sweetened their season: They did move the ball, even through the air. Dan Vitale caught a touchdown pass on his birthday, the “warrior” Kain Colter found space with his feet and Stephen Buckley looked like the future starter at running back. Despite Mike Trumpy’s costly pair of fumbles, it seemed awfully sensible to let this offense try — to let them finally return.
Would overtime have been acceptable against Ohio State? Would overtime have sufficed last year, when the offense flattened opponents? Did Pat Fitzgerald look at Kain Colter–the senior–and explain his decision?
He took the ball away from his offense.
Northwestern lost, again, taking a figurative knee in the process.
“We were playing to win the game,” Fitzgerald said of the fateful scenario. You could almost laugh, because no, they were not. They were, truly and technically, playing for an overtime crapshoot devoid of any momentum.
It’s part of the frustration that surrounds this season. There is no emotional redemption. I would pay to see Fitzgerald’s impassioned response had Colter lofted up a game-winning 60-yard touchdown pass in the waning seconds.
“That’s heart from our young men,” I’d imagine him saying. “They’re tough [and they went 1-0 this week].”
In overtime, there was no solace. Rudock made an outstanding throw to C.J. Fiedorowicz for the Hawkeyes touchdown. Under pressure of the mental and physical sort, the Colter-led offense turned the ball over on downs.
At that point, the lack of faith made sense. Otherwise, it never could.
Fitzgerald’s job is always safe. He’s restructured the entire program — amounting to last year’s 10-win season, improved recruiting and national attention.
But today, he showed no regard for what he had built. And fittingly, the clock’s ticking on this disaster season.