Game mirrors year of missed chances (Football)

Saturday’s 41-22 loss at Illinois was a microcosm for the entire season. The opportunities were there, but Northwestern didn’t take advantage of them.

“We’re going to look back on the entire body of season and see missed opportunities that we had,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought today was a game that early we really needed to go out there and seize some momentum and make some plays. We had some opportunities to do that, and obviously from the outcome we did not get that job done.”

The Wildcats had a chance to begin the game with a statement and force Illinois to play from behind. NU drove into Illinois territory on its first drive, but junior quarterback C.J. Bacher threw an interception on third down that sailed 10 yards past junior wide receiver Eric Peterman.

The defense had a chance to respond on the Illini’s ensuing drive, but quarterback Juice Williams delivered a key completion on 3rd and 3 from the NU 21 to set up a touchdown drive. Illinois converted on eight of 14 third-down chances.

“When you’ve got everything on the line versus going home or going to a bowl, it’s go hard or go home,” junior running back Tyrell Sutton said. “It’s all or nothing, and I guess we chose nothing.”

While the Cats needed a win to secure a bowl berth, NU looked back after Saturday’s loss to squandered opportunities earlier in the year.

The fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan. Four incompletions from the 7-yard line to seal a loss at home to 1-10 Duke. Blown leads in the final quarter against Purdue and Iowa.

A win over any of those teams would have given the Cats seven wins and a trip to the postseason. Instead, NU finished 10th in the Big Ten and will need losses from several teams on the bubble to make a bowl.

“If you want to be honest, we should be 10-2 right now,” Sutton said. “You can look back on it and say if we hadn’t missed a play here or we had one missed game … but it’s too late now. You can’t sit on it and reflect on it. You can’t cry over spilled milk.”

The Cats weren’t crying over the mess, but the mood after the game was somber. Peterman and senior linebacker Adam Kadela called the lopsided loss disappointing. Sutton had another word for it.

“I’m pissed,” Sutton said. “To be bowl-eligible and not go anywhere, there’s only one emotion going. I’m pissed. I’m upset because it’s my last time playing with the seniors. It’s a great group of guys to be around. The seniors, if that’s their last game … it’s heartbreaking.”

If it is the end for NU, it was a tough one for Kadela, who finished with a game-high 17 tackles.

“You definitely don’t want to go out that way,” he said. “We’re all competitors, and especially this season, you want to go out as a winner. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the plays we needed to.”

BACHER passes BASANEZ

Bacher’s 310-yard passing day moved him into first in NU history for single-season passing yards. His 3,656 yards on the season eclipses Brett Basanez’s mark of 3,622 in 2005.

“It doesn’t really mean much to me,” Bacher said. “It’s a testament to our receivers, offensive line and running backs making plays. We’re just really upset and disappointed that we lost this game.”

Bacher, who is fourth in the country in passing yards, finished the season 318-of-521 (61 percent) but had as many touchdowns (19) as interceptions.

INCHES TO GO…

Sutton’s 139 total yards moved him into fourth in NU history with 3,943 all-purpose yards. … Senior defensive end David Ngene and sophomore safety Brad Phillips both left the game with concussions. … Peterman finished with 120 yards on 10 catches. It was his third game this year with more than 100 receiving yards.

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]