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December 31, 2011

Third-down letdown

HOUSTON--After all the missteps that Northwestern endured in three-plus quarters of the Meineke Care Car of Texas Bowl -- the eight sacks allowed, the eight penalties, the offense sleepwalking through three-plus quarters and, at one point, getting flagged for three false-start penalties in a four-play stretch -- the Wildcats still had a chance to pull out an improbable victory if the defense got one more stop.

Trailing 30-22, the defense forced Texas A&M into two third downs of six or more yards, but both times the Aggies converted on passing plays. And instead of giving Dan Persa a chance at leading the Wildcats on a game-tying touchdown drive, the Aggies added a field goal to ice their 33-22 win.

Don't look now, but that celebrated 63-year-old monkey that Northwestern players have been carrying on their backs in Houston is now a 64-year-old gorilla.

"It stinks because we didn't give the ball back to give us a chance to win the game," said fifth-year senior safety Brian Peters of the two blown chances to get Texas A&M's offense off the field. "Whenever you get the ball back to Persa and([Jeremy Ebert) and (Kain Colter) and those guys, you have a chance to win. But there were lapses again, one-on-one breakdowns that cost us."

After trailing 30-7 early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern exploded for 15 unanswered points within six minutes to close to within 30-22. Colter scored on a one-yard run for the second of the two touchdowns, and he hit Tim Riley for a two-point conversion to close the gap to 30-22.

After trailing by at least two scores since the second quarter, Northwestern was just another TD and two-pointer away from tying the game and seizing the momentum that had been bathed in maroon all afternoon but was now clearly wearing purple.

The Aggies took over at their own 18-yard line, and after one first down they faced a third-and-8 at the 33 when Northwestern called timeout. With Wildcat players flapping their arms for more noise, the purple section of the crowd of 68,325 roared when the Aggies came to the line of scrimmage. A false start penalty pushed A&M back five more yards, giving them a third-and-13, and the crowd grew even louder.

But instead of getting rattled, Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill calmly dropped back and hit Uzoma Nwachukwu on a deep out for 21 yards and a first down at the 49 yard-line.

Northwestern's pass defense had let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers.

Still, the Wildcats got a second chance. Just two plays later, A&M was faced a third-and-6 at the NU 47 with 2:43 left. If NU got a stop, they might still have a chance.

This time, Tannehill, who completed 27-of-40 passes for 329 yards, one touchdown and the game MVP award, dropped back, looked to the left sideline and hit Jeff Fuller, who went up over Jeravin Matthews and pulled down a 29-yard completion at the Northwestern 18.

That was the final nail in the Cats' coffin. With 30 seconds left, Randy Bullock drilled a 31-yard field goal and the game was out of reach.

Although Northwestern's offense was also to blame for this loss -- the Wildcats scored just seven points through the first 45:45 of the game and allowed eight sacks for 65 yards in losses -- it was perhaps fitting that the defense failed to come up with the big play at the end of the game.

With apologies to Persa, it was the pass defense that had been the Wildcats' Achilles heel all season.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted that the final letdown was symbolic of the Wildcats' entire 6-7 season.

"We had it and were just one stop away, one more third-down pickup away and one onside kick away," said Fitzgerald, who has now lost four consecutive bowls. "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."

And Northwestern sits with a nine-game bowl losing streak, a skein that now matches Notre Dame's as the longest in college football history.



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