It doesn’t take a tremendous lapse in sanity to imagine Northwestern at 9-0, first in the Big Ten and rising up the Bowl Championship Series rankings.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Wildcats are only 45 minutes of football away from that exact reality.
“We’ve had three bad quarters that have cost us games,” he said.
Those three bad quarters, the fourth quarters against Purdue and Michigan State and the third quarter Saturday against Penn State, are the reason NU is 6-3 and unranked rather than undefeated and in the BCS hunt.
In all three of their losses, the Cats have led in the second half, even as late as the final two minutes against Michigan State. NU let second-half leads of seven, 10 and 14 slip against the Boilermakers, Spartans and Nittany Lions, respectively.
“There’s one common theme: We didn’t make a lot of plays in the second half of both those games,” Fitzgerald said. “We were driving to win the game against Purdue and shot ourselves in the foot. Against Michigan State we had the opportunity for a bunch of plays and didn’t make them. The same thing on Saturday.”
In the three quarters Fitzgerald highlighted, the Cats were outscored a combined 49-3.
Senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said the Cats’ collapse in Happy Valley was the most complete of the three across both sides of the ball.
“Purdue and Michigan State were a little different,” he said. “Those games came down to maybe one drive or one play. Penn State was plays in bunches here, plays in bunches there.”
Against Purdue and Michigan State, despite smaller leads, the Cats held on inside the final five minutes until late scores spelled their doom. Though NU led Penn State by 21 points with less than a minute remaining in the first half, its inability to get anything going offensively or defensively allowed the Nittany Lions to take a touchdown lead by the end of the third quarter.
Fitzgerald said the Cats let Penn State back into Saturday’s contest because of missed tackles and the absence of game-changing plays to swing the momentum back in NU’s favor.
“We missed more tackles on Saturday than we’ve missed in the previous five or six games combined,” he said, citing 27 missed tackles. “We had three opportunities that all would have been big plays.”
Fitzgerald said the three missed opportunities for big plays were the Cats’ inability to convert on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter, a dropped interception and a wasted opportunity for a blocked punt.
“Those three plays we were 0-for-3,” Fitzgerald said. “Those were the plays we made in the first half, and in the second half, we didn’t make them.”
Senior offensive guard Keegan Grant said Penn State’s comeback had less to do with tactical changes than it did an adjustment in mentality.
“Scheme-wise, they didn’t really change anything,” he said. “But the players came out with something to prove after the first half.”
But, while the problems associated with the Cats’ three blown leads have been easy to specify, explicit solutions remain more general.
“We’ve got to play better,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to coach better.”