Anguish in Aggieland: Wildcats fall 33-22 in Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

Colin Becht

HOUSTON – The 63-year-old monkey lives on for another year.

Despite a furious fourth-quarter comeback, the Wildcats (6-7) were unable to snap their 63-year bowl win drought as Northwestern fell to Texas A&M (7-6), 33-22 on Saturday.

After failing to generate momentum on offense or defense through the first three quarters, NU scored twice in the fourth quarter to pull within one score. However, with a systematic drive that ran four minutes and 52 seconds off the clock, the Aggies sucked the life out of the Cats’ comeback bid and sealed NU’s ninth straight bowl loss.

“We had it and were just one stop away,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It was kind of indicative of the year. We’ve been ‘one this’ and ‘one that’ all year, and that’s why we sit where we sit right now.”

The Cats, who suffered their first losing season since 2006, have now matched Notre Dame for the longest streak of consecutive bowl losses.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working,” senior offensive tackle Al Netter said. “The monkey is still on our back.”

Trailing 30-7 early in the fourth quarter, NU finally found the rhythm it had been lacking for nearly the entire game.

Senior safety Brian Peters intercepted quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Texas A&M territory and the Cats struck for their first points since early in the second quarter.

In the fourth quarter, sophomore quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter punched the ball across the goal line from a yard out for the touchdown and a wide receiver reverse pass from senior Jeremy Ebert to junior wide receiver Demetrius Fields added two more points.

The NU defense forced a three-and-out after an unsuccessful onside kick, allowing quarterbacks Dan Persa and Colter to drive the Cats down the field again.

Colter rolled out to the right and found linebacker-turned-superback Tim Riley along the sideline to trim the Aggies’ lead to one score.

Needing one more stop to give itself a chance to send the game into overtime, the Cats’ defense was unable to get off the field despite backing Texas A&M into several third-and-long situations. Tannehill found wide receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu for a 21-yard gain on third-and-13, and wide receiver Jeff Fuller out-jumped senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews to haul in a 29-yard pass on third-and-six.

“We got to third-and-long twice,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously we didn’t give our guys a good enough call to win.”

The Aggies settled for a 31-yard field goal from kicker Randy Bullock, but the points and the time elapsed were enough to secure the team’s first bowl win since 2001.

“We needed the ball back to compete and try to win the game,” Peters said. “There were a few one-man breakdowns that cost us. We’ve got to do our jobs.”

The Cats struggled mightily on offense for much of the game despite facing the 77th worst scoring defense in the nation. NU posted negative-one yard of total offense in the third quarter as Texas A&M expanded its 20-7 halftime lead into a 23-point advantage.

The Aggies continually broke through the Cats’ offensive line to bring down Persa and Colter. NU’s quarterbacks were sacked a total of eight times for a combined loss of 65 yards. Even when Persa was able to get off a pass, it was often rushed and to a checkdown receiver for minimal gain. Persa’s 17 completions through the first three quarters went for just 116 yards.

With a hurried passing game and a ground attack that, apart from Colter, went for negative yards, the Cats were forced to punt on eight of their first nine drives. A 77-yard drive early in the second quarter that was capped by a two-yard touchdown run from sophomore wide receiver Venric Mark was the lone exception.

The Cats also shot themselves in the foot with yellow flags, giving up 67 yards as a result of eight penalties. On a drive in the third quarter, NU committed three false start penalties on four plays, a product of the hostile environment and simulated snap calls by the Texas A&M defensive line.

“The Aggie line, they would move when we were about to snap the ball and they would say something, like ‘Go’,” Colter said. “It was drawing our offensive line off.”

By the time the NU offense got going consistently, it was too late and the deficit was too great for the Cats to really challenge for a win.

Texas A&M built its lead through the air as Tannehill picked on a vulnerable NU secondary missing its top cornerback in senior Jordan Mabin. Fuller blew past senior cornerback Mike Bolden on a streak for a 26-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, part of a stretch of 27 unanswered points by the Aggies spanning the second and third quarters.

When NU played soft coverage to avoid getting beaten deep, it surrendered easy completions underneath, allowing both Fuller and Ryan Swope to eclipse the 100-yard mark. Never did the soft coverage prove more costly than on Nwachukwu’s reception late in the fourth quarter to move the chains and enable the Aggies to ice the game.

“We caught the right coverage,” Tannehill said. “(Nwachukwu) ran a great route and made a good catch.”

Tannehill was elected the most valuable player of the game for his 329-yard passing performance.

The stuffed monkey in the No. 63 jersey that the Cats used to symbolize their bowl victory drought will need a new jersey next year.

“We failed in that regard and let everybody down,” said Persa, who finished his NU career with the NCAA record for career completion percentage. “And we know it.”

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