Northwestern may have lost six consecutive Big Ten football games, but Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn't misplaced his sense of humor.
After losing the past two on a Hail Mary pass and in overtime after an end-of-regulation field goal extended the game, he said:
“We went from four seconds away to one second away (from winning), so I guess we're getting better.”
It is hardly a stretch to think Northwestern (4-6, 0-6) could be 5-1 in the league. A 35-6 loss at Wisconsin was never a contest. But the other five games were a whisker away from going the other way:
Ľ Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30: The Wildcats led 20-13 at half, 23-20 at the end of the third quarter and 30-27 with less than six minutes left. After falling behind 34-30, Northwestern drove to the Ohio State 34 but was stopped on fourth down with 2:34 left.
Ľ Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17: Playing without quarterback Kain Colter or tailback Venric Mark, Northwestern was tied at halftime and closed to three points late but couldn't recover an onside kick.
Ľ Iowa 17, Northwestern 10 in OT: Down 10-0 at half, the Wildcats rallied to tie and were marching for the winning score late in the fourth quarter when a penalty and fumble killed the drive.
Ľ Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24: Not much to add here. Northwestern jumped to a 21-7 lead and was still ahead with four seconds left when the Huskers completed a Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play.
Ľ Michigan 27, Northwestern 19 in 3 OTs: The Wolverines' field-goal unit sprinted onto the field at the end of regulation — holder Drew Dileo literally slid into place before handling the snap — and beat the clock with a 44-yarder to force overtime. Northwestern led or was tied through 54 minutes of regulation play.
|MORE BIG TEN NEWS|
|Get the latest Big Ten headlines from The World-Herald and from beat writers around the nation.|
The Wildcats talked openly before the season, after going 10-3 in 2012, about moving up an echelon into championship contention.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday he knew that was easier said than done because of youth in key spots and a run of injuries last spring that slowed development.
“We were behind rep-wise,” he said. “I thought the staff did a really good job of getting us ready the first month of the season.”
Then came lingering injuries to Colter, a season-ending ankle fracture to Mark and more ailments after going virtually injury free the year before. Fitzgerald offered no excuses, though, and blamed himself and his staff for not finding different ways to produce.
“What I've learned about our group is we're a bunch of fighters,” he said. “Even this morning, I can't say I walked off the field and said, 'Wow, these guys — in any way, shape or form — changed the way they've approached this game.'
“You can talk to the coaches who have played us. They know they've been in a battle.”
Last season, Northwestern won its first bowl game since the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season. Now, the Wildcats must upset No. 13 Michigan State on the road and beat Illinois to stretch their string of bowl-eligible seasons to seven.
“We're realizing just how hard it is,” Fitzgerald said, “to win a Big Ten football game.”