Sidebar: One play away from ending the drought

Matt Forman

SAN ANTONIO – Despite pundits’ predictions and pessimists’ prophecies, Northwestern went toe-to-toe with Missouri for a 15-round dogfight, forcing the Big 12 North champions to the brink.

The Wildcats won the turnover and time-of-possession battles and contained the high-powered, dual-threat attack of Chase Daniel. Still, the Cats were missing something.

One more play.

“I thought that we came out swinging,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When we did face some adversity we just kept on fighting. We’ve just got to find a way to make one more play to get over this mountaintop.”

It wasn’t so much the Tigers making plays as it was the Cats not making plays. Numerous times throughout its 30-23 overtime loss, NU had potential game-changing opportunities to put the game out of reach.

  • Facing third-and-nine at the NU 11-yard line with less than seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, senior quarterback C.J. Bachér found Tyrell Sutton on a screen pass. The senior running back let his blockers set up and scampered 43 yards into Missouri territory. Instead of running out of bounds or getting tackled, Sutton attempted to initiate contact and run over safety William Moore. Moore popped the ball loose from Sutton, who was wearing a soft cast due to a wrist injury suffered against Indiana earlier in the season. The fumble was mitigated by the fact that the Tigers went offsides on the play, but third-and-four at the NU 16 is different than first-and-10 at the Missouri 46.
  • Halfway through the second quarter, NU set up for a 47-yard field goal by senior kicker Amado Villarreal. Instead of running the ball on third-and-two, Fitzgerald opted to pass. Had the Cats run to pick up the first down or get into the middle of the field, it would have been a chip shot. Instead, Villarreal missed the field goal wide left from the left hash. A field goal would have put NU ahead 13-3.
  • With one minute remaining in the first half, NU’s offense stalled at its own 40-yard line. Sophomore punter Stefan Demos had pooch kicked away from returner Jeremy Maclin earlier in the game, but this time his kick found Maclin. The dynamic All-American fielded the linedrive punt, juked two defenders and went 75 yards untouched for the score. NU could have gone into the locker room ahead by a touchdown had Demos done a rugby-style kick, punted out of bounds or if one tackle had been made.
  • The Cats marched down the field on a six-play, 80-yard drive to open the second half. After taking a six-point lead on the 46-yard touchdown pass from Bachér to senior wide receiver Rasheed Ward, Villarreal came on for the extra point. This time, he hit the right upright. The one-point advantage would have forced Missouri to go for a touchdown, rather than a field goal, in the fourth quarter.
  • Ahead by a field goal with the ball deep inside its own territory, NU looked to put the game away with one last drive in the final minutes. A touchdown would make it a two-possession game with fewer than five minutes remaining. A field goal would force Missouri to go for a touchdown. On two separate occasions, pass plays that could have led to first downs were called back on holding penalties on the interior of the line.
  • With slightly less than five minutes remaining in the game. Missouri began a drive at its own 48-yard line. On second down inside NU territory, the front four pressured Daniel into an erratic throw. As the pass sailed out of Daniel’s hands and beyond Maclin, junior cornerback Sherrick McManis saw the pass go through his hands as a potential interception flashed before his eyes. Five plays later, Jeff Wolfert kicked a 37-yard field goal to tie the game. McManis’ near interception would have given the Cats the ball with the ability to run out the clock.
  • On third-and-goal at the Missouri eight-yard line, NU needed a touchdown to tie the game and force a second overtime. As the Cats shifted before the snap and brought Sutton into the backfield, the Tigers changed their blitz package and brought first-team All-Big 12 defender Sean Weatherspoon. Bachér looked downfield and had an open receiver. There was a breakdown in protection up front, and as Bachér was sacked, he fumbled for a loss of 24 yards. If the blocking scheme was shored up before the play, NU may have tied the game.

Fitzgerald stressed throughout the season that football is an 11-man operation. Little individual breakdowns prevented the Cats from making that one, game-altering play.

“They made more plays than we did,” Bachér said. “A couple plays here and there, maybe there’s a different result.”

If the team needed one more play, the solution to getting over the proverbial mountaintop is simple.

“We’ll run one more sprint next time,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to do one more rep and just find a way to get one more play.

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