Big Ten title loss a missed opportunity for NU
In time, this season at Northwestern could be remembered as a great memory or a huge missed opportunity. Probably a little bit of both.
After a 22-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, coach Pat Fitzgerald knew the truth: This wasn't a gutty performance by the Wildcats, it was a game they should have won.
The way it all played out, Northwestern had a great chance to be in the College Football Playoff, but a poor start against Michigan State and bad finish against OSU spoiled it all. Will NU get another chance to step onto the sport's highest level? Who knows.
"We didn't come down here to play hard, we came down here to win and not to get the job done is bitterly disappointing," Fitzgerald said after the game. "But I'm really proud of them. They led us to this point, they've done a terrific job."
There were plenty of plays Saturday that Fitzgerald will be replaying in his mind all winter. The first drive of the third quarter, with a chance to go up 17-6, quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw an interception in the end zone. Actually, it was the whole sequence that wasn't great -- from a first down at the OSU 11-yard line, two QB runs for short gain and then the pick.
Maybe it will be the two trick plays that backfired. The Wildcats swung for the fences a couple of times with Libertyville's Riley Lees, trying a throwback pass on the opening drive and later an end around. But both plays lost yardage and squelched momentum.
Then there were two more turnovers in the second half. Ramsey fumbled when his own offensive lineman accidentally crashed into him on a run. Ramsey was also tripped up by the same lineman when it looked like he had room to run on a third down.
"I wish I could have done some things over," Ramsey said. "Just got to be smarter and take care of the ball better than I did in that second half. There were times when we had some momentum and there were times when we just killed that momentum."
In the end, Northwestern's defense did a nice job of containing Georgia transfer QB Justin Fields, but couldn't stop Oklahoma transfer RB Trey Sermon, who rolled up a school-record 331 yards on 29 carries, mostly in the second half. Fitzgerald chalked that up to forgetting the basics.
"We've got to be the most sound, fundamental, blue-collar football team that there is in the country," Fitzgerald said.
"This is a team loss. We had to adjust better in the second half as a staff."
Of course, playing in the Big Ten title game twice in three years is a nice step for the program. Northwestern has experienced a recruiting bump thanks to the beautiful lakefront practice facility, most likely.
Keeping it going is the challenge, especially for a lofty academic school with just 25 years of successful football tradition. Stanford has had its moments as a football power, but not consistently.
"It's just unreal for the bar to be set to this, to winning the West and competing for a Big Ten title," said senior Paddy Fisher, who is in the conversation with his head coach and a few others as NU's greatest linebacker. "That wasn't the standard when we got here. The bar wasn't set that high."
Fitzgerald talked about the need to get bigger, stronger, faster and create more competitive depth on the roster. Then he launched into a recruiting pitch for Ramsey, the grad transfer from Indiana, to come back for another year.
Fitzgerald also said Northwestern plans to participate in a bowl game.
"He was the glue that we needed as a program," Fitzgerald said of Ramsey, an Ohio native. "If he comes back, then his challenge will be to get us back here and to get it done. I sure hope he does.
"It would be great if you guys added Peyton Ramsey, whatever his Twitter is, and tell him to come back, Wildcat Nation. I start the campaign right now. But that's just me."
After a frustrating loss, the only thing Fitzgerald can do is stay hungry for more success.
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