Big Ten

Crucial game for Northwestern vs. heartbreak Huskers

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Crucial game for Northwestern vs. heartbreak Huskers

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.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]

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.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?