The storyline of Nebraska's season so far has been incredible, heart-breaking losses in the final moments of games.
The Huskers have lost games this season on a last-second Hail Mary, in overtime after throwing an interception, on a go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left and on a last-second field goal.
If Huskers head coach Mike Riley needs a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, he's got one in Pat Fitzgerald.
“They’ve had some heartbreaking losses. I know how that feels," Fitzgerald said with a smile. "So I feel for them.”
You can't help but laugh because "I know how that feels" was one heck of an understatement by Fitzgerald, whose Northwestern teams have endured the types of losses and the type of season that Nebraska is going through right now.
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Take a trip back to 2013, when the Wildcats lost to the Huskers on a Hail Mary touchdown at game's end. In that same season, Northwestern lost twice in overtime — including once after the extra period was forced by Michigan converting a last-second field goal where the place-holder slid into place as time was melting off the clock. The season before that, Northwestern lost to Michigan after a 53-yard pass with nine seconds left set up an overtime-forcing field goal. Last year, the Cats lost to the Wolverines when a Northwestern two-point conversion attempt with three seconds left on the clock failed.
So, yeah, Fitzgerald is sympathetic.
And because of it, he knows that perhaps Nebraska isn't exactly what its 3-4 record says it is.
“I think it’s a direct reflection of wacky endings, heartbreaking endings," Fitzgerald said Monday during his weekly press conference. "But what’s impressive is those guys have stuck together. Went on the road and beat a very good Minnesota team last week. That was really, really impressive. They look great on tape. They’ve got playmakers all over the place offensively. Defensively, they’re very stout. … And (De'Mornay) Pierson-El’s one of the best return men on the planet. So we’ll have our hands full.”
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While we're revisiting Northwestern results of seasons past, it's important to note that the games between these two programs since Nebraska joined the Big Ten have been immensely entertaining, even if they have rarely ended up in the Cats' favor. Fitzgerald's team has faced the Huskers in each of the last four seasons and won just once, the first time in 2011.
In that first meeting, Northwestern never trailed, but things got real tight as the teams combined for 29 fourth-quarter points, touchdowns on each of the final four drives of the game. The Cats hung on for a 28-25 win when the Huskers' onside kick failed.
In 2012, Northwestern led, 28-16, but the Huskers came back with two touchdowns in the final six minutes to win by a point, 29-28. After the Cats fell behind, Jeff Budzien missed a go-ahead field goal try.
In 2013, there was the Hail Mary. With the game tied, Tyler Scott's interception with two and a half minutes left set Northwestern up at the seven-yard line, and a six-yard Kain Colter run had the Cats at the one. But the next two plays were negative ones, forcing a field goal that allowed Ron Kellogg III's Hail Mary touchdown toss to be a game-winner.
Last season, Northwestern had a 17-14 lead at halftime before Nebraska pounded the Cats in the second half, the Huskers posting 24 unanswered second-half points.
So there's a history here, too, even if Nebraska's coaching staff is a new one.
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And avoiding a fourth straight loss to the Huskers will be absolutely crucial if the Cats want to avoid this season spiraling out of control. Back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa have changed the outlook for Northwestern dramatically, a sudden and shocking turn of events for a team that looked like one of the nation's best through five undefeated weeks to open the season. But after allowing just seven points a game through the first five games, Northwestern has been outscored, 78-10, the last two weeks. After leading the Big Ten in rushing through five weeks, the Cats have totaled just 89 rushing yards the last two weeks.
Fitzgerald has expressed that he and his staff need to get the players back to playing how they were through five weeks instead of through two. But is that a job that requires changing what they're doing physically or how they're thinking mentally?
“I think like everybody in the country, everybody’s beat up. It’s a battle of attrition, mentally and physically. It’s a grind," Fitzgerald said. "We’ve got to handle our business. We need to take care of what we need to take care of during the week and come fresh mentally, fresh physically, which we try to do from the way that we practice. There’s no reason why we don’t feel fresh, and we should every Saturday from a standpoint of preparation. Got to go make plays. ... It’s kind of what football is a little bit right now, guys got to make plays. And we’ve been devoid of that a little bit the last two weeks. The guys know that. So I want to see them have fun, play with passion and cut it loose, play physical, play with technique, play consistently and make plays. When we’ve done that, we’ve won five games. Need to see us get back to that.”