Deep down, maybe Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knew.
Fitzgerald used earnestness that makes him so appealing to deny he sensed the inevitability everybody else felt Saturday at Ryan Field midway through the fourth quarter of a 29-28 loss to Nebraska. But Fitzgerald's actions spoke louder than his words.
On fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 5 with 8:55 left in a game Northwestern led 21-16, Fitzgerald went for it. Nothing says a coach has little faith in his defense more than a risky call like that. A coach has a hard time defending it without acknowledging his defense, well, has a hard time defending.
A fourth-down stop by Nebraska resulting in no points would have unforgivably swung momentum. A chip-shot field goal would have given Northwestern an eight-point lead that Top 25, Big Ten-contending, Rose Bowl-thinking teams know they can protect.
Fitzgerald doesn't have that kind of team yet — the only thing more obvious Saturday than Nebraska fans turning Northwestern into a well-red campus indeed.
Northwestern remains a team you love to watch but hate to trust because of the kind of oh-so-close, near-miss moments the Wildcats just squandered. The best thing about Northwestern's 6-2 start is how it has captured Chicago's imagination enough to think anything's possible in a year of Big Ten mediocrity. The worst thing about Northwestern's 6-2 start is how it has captured Chicago's imagination enough to think anything's possible in a year of Big Ten mediocrity.
You want to believe in Northwestern and a college football coach who fits his job description as well as anybody in America. After another blown lead late in a game Northwestern matched up well physically, you wonder how much the Wildcats truly believe in themselves in those moments.
Asked if Northwestern's biggest problem could be psychological, Fitzgerald quickly dismissed the idea. Remember, Fitzgerald is so tirelessly optimistic he told reporters to "buck up and smile,'' during his postgame news conference.
"I don't think it has anything to do psychologically because a week ago (against Minnesota) we go out 2-minute drill and defense pushed offense back three times,'' Fitzgerald said.
Sure, Fitz's choice to skip a field goal looked like a brilliant decision when quarterback Kain Colter lunged for a first down and running back Mike Trumpy scored on the next play to make it 28-16. But in the final 8 minutes, 31 seconds the Northwestern defense followed the script Fitzgerald foreshadowed with a fourth-down gamble that was more telling than moot. His decision reminded everybody how badly Northwestern needed a cushion and why doubt felt so right.
"I felt like we needed touchdowns instead of field goals,'' Fitzgerald said. "Their offense (averaging 43 points per game) is so darn explosive that you never feel like you've got the thing in the bag.''
Northwestern never got that feeling because the Wildcats refused to seize control no matter how hard Nebraska tried to let them. On Nebraska's first fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Northwestern defenders dropped interceptions on two straight plays. In the first half, the Cornhuskers lost three fumbles — two inside their own 38 — but Northwestern only scored seven points off those turnovers.
"Tough pill to swallow,'' Fitzgerald said.
For Northwestern's offense, the pre-game nap that Fitzgerald ordered lasted until Venric Mark's 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Colter, one of the Big Ten's biggest threats when used correctly, had little impact against an opponent he dominated in a 2011 victory. Blame Northwestern's offensive game plan as much as Nebraska's defense.
With four winnable games remaining, Fitzgerald might consider re-examining his two-quarterback system that limited Colter to 65 yards total offense against a defense giving up 42 points per road game. No. 1-A quarterback Trevor Siemian (15-of-35 for 116 yards) possesses loads of skill and potential. But if a college football team averages 7.7 yards per completion by its quarterback that threatens defenses most downfield, it really doesn't have a quarterback who threatens defenses downfield.
"Offense to me is all about rhythm,'' Colter said.
Does changing positions make it harder to find that rhythm, I asked Colter.
"It's tough,'' he said. "But I can't make excuses.''
Nor did Colter complain about the indignity of facing a home-field disadvantage on the potential game-winning drive. At least half the crowd of 47,330 represented the visiting team — enough to wonder if Cornhuskers fans would rush the field at the end of the game. Hearing chants for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was bad enough.
The Big Red Army made so much noise after Nebraska took the lead that Northwestern players needed to use a "silent count'' during the 2-minute drill because they couldn't hear the cadence.
"We didn't prepare for that,'' Colter said.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, the rest of the game went as we have come to expect.