No fourth-quarter fade as Cats come up clutch at game’s end

MADISON, Wis. — As last year’s fourth quarter jinx draped itself over Camp Randall Stadium, it seemed only a matter of time before Northwestern would crumble in Saturday’s epic double-overtime shootout against No. 7 Wisconsin.

After the Badgers’ Vitaly Pisetsky hooked a 46-yard field goal wide left midway through the fourth quarter, the two teams combined for 51 points with the Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) prevailing 47-44 in one of the most improbable games in school history.

For a team that scored a mere 32 points after the third quarter all last year, NU’s 30-point outburst in the fourth quarter and overtime marked a breakthrough in the clutch department.

From Zak Kustok’s 29-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-8 to Damien Anderson’s 69-yard scamper, to the unforgettable 51-second drive leading to Tim Long’s game-tying field goal, the Cats simply didn’t fold.

After Wisconsin scored to send the game into double overtime, cornerback Rashidi Wheeler remembered the words a NU coach had told him prior to the game.

“He said that if someone’s choking you under water, what do you have to do?,” Wheeler said. “You’ve got to fight and breathe, so we all just huddled up and said just breathe, breathe again. Fight, fight, and that’s what we did.”

The game was eerily similar to NU’s heartbreaking 31-23 loss to Purdue in last season’s Big Ten opener. As was the case Saturday, the Cats entered the game 2-1 against a ranked opponent, matched their opponent for the early part of the fourth quarter, then allowed a long touchdown drive to fall behind. Purdue’s 99-yard bomb from Drew Brees to Vinny Sutherland snatched the life out of NU’s comeback and the loss virtually ended all hopes of a successful season.

It was a different ending this year, as the Cats overcame countless challenges in the final quarter. First, with Wisconsin driving toward a game-clinching score, the NU defense — with the gift of a dropped touchdown pass by receiver Nick Davis — forced the Badgers into a 47-yard field goal attempt that went wide left.

After the ball changed hands two more times the Cats took the lead on a scintillating 69-yard sprint by Anderson. Wisconsin went back on top with a four-play, 70-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass from quarterback Brooks Bollinger to Davis. NU again responded, storming into Badgers territory before Kustok found a wide open Derrick Thompson in the end zone to knot the score at 31.

“On that fourth down touchdown pass to Derrick, I was just sitting back in the shotgun and had a little smile on my face,” Kustok said. “I said, ‘God, just be with me on this play.’ I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that we weren’t going to make that play and that we weren’t going to score.”

No such magic took place last year, when NU was outscored 79-26 in fourth quarters. After the Purdue game, the Cats conceeded the final 16 points to Minnesota and the last 10 points to Indiana in consecutive losses. On the way to a 3-8 record, the Cats were blanked 19-0 in the fourth quarters of their final three games.

The heroics displayed Saturday have been missing from NU games for years. Dwayne Missouri had to think back to his freshman season to find an experience to compare with Saturday’s stunner in Madison.

“As far as emotion and just battling back I’d have to say freshman year Michigan when we were down 16-0 going into the fourth quarter,” he said of the 1996 win over the No. 5 Wolverines. “Just coming back and kicking those two field goals to make it 17-16. I can’t really think of anything since then.”

Although it is still early in the season, NU has shown the fortitude to stay afloat late in the game. Last season there were no touchdown passes on fourth-and-8, no 51-second miracle drives, no game-tying field goals as time expired.

“We’re going to have some good and bad in every game, and the key is when the clock says triple zeros, you got one more than they got somehow,” NU coach Randy Walker said. “You just keep playing, you don’t drag anchors with you.”