Forman: Fitzgerald falls for storyline in trickeration

Matt Forman

I’m still waiting for a flag to be thrown.

You know, the penalty flag that allows Northwestern to take another shot at its first bowl victory in more than 60 years.

After the gut-wrenching twists and turns of the game, I still don’t believe the Outback Bowl came to a close.

The Wildcats used each of their allotted nine lives to extend the game. With the way the contest was going, you would expect NU to have an extra life to fall back on.

Maybe a personal foul penalty on Auburn’s Neiko Thorpe for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Zeke Markshausen on the final play of the game. Thorpe did lead with his head­-the call could have been justifiably made and would have given the Cats new life.

Maybe a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty on Auburn, since the play happened so quickly. Auburn had 11 players on the field, but it was just as confused as everyone else in the stadium, along with the referees.

But those calls didn’t happen. Instead, we’re left to wonder what if. What if Stefan Demos hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Markshausen held the ball between his legs for a split second longer and let the misdirection fake develop? What if Corey Wootton held his block a half-second longer and sealed the outside edge? What if the play had gone to the wide side of the field, not the short side, since Auburn’s defense is fast and athletic?

When he made the call for the trick play, Coach Pat Fitzgerald felt the stars were aligning in Raymond James Stadium. He turned to the 15,000-plus passionate purple fans in the stands, flashed a smile and knew the timing was appropriate. He had to run “Heater,” a modern-day fumblerooski championed by Randy Walker, since this group of fifth-year seniors was the last to play for the late coach.

Walker used to call the play “Fastball,” which went along with his idea of naming all trick plays after baseball terminology. The Cats had to alter the name of the play when offensive coordinator Mick McCall instituted his hurry-up, no-huddle offense, which is called fastball.Mike Kafka said he didn’t know the schematics of the play. Markshausen was hesitant to describe it. Fitzgerald told reporters after the game, “You guys are killing me. You want me to diagram it for you? Do we have a dry erase board around here?”

Football 101 says take the points and tie the game. Or if you’re not going to kick the field goal, run the crown jewel of your playbook and put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, Kafka.

Here’s why Fitzgerald had no second thoughts about the play and his players supported it 100 percent: It was a win-win, split-second decision. If the play worked, Fitzgerald is viewed as a genius. NU becomes the next Boise State. The Cats send shockwaves through the football universe. Instead, it didn’t work, and Fitzgerald is viewed as gutsy. NU becomes the hard-fighting squad that played in an instant classic.

If you ask me, Fitzgerald fell in love with the trick play and fell in love with the storyline. He fell in love with the idea of winning the game on a trick play.

After the two-point conversion attempt was successful, Fitzgerald called a wide receiver reverse pass on the Cats’ first possession of overtime, which was snubbed out by the Tigers but still gained positive yardage.

The trickery paid off the first time and barely worked the second time. It almost worked the third time, but almost doesn’t count when you’re going for a win. The play ended one yard short.

Since a flag wasn’t thrown, NU fans everywhere are still waiting-waiting for a bowl victory for the first time since 1949.

As someone said in the press box after the game, “What does this team need to win a bowl game? They’re probably going to have to wait until 2049.”

Editor in Chief Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]