The College GameDay curse is real. At least, it is for Northwestern.
Since winning their first four games, the Wildcats have dropped their last six since ESPN took the weekly televised road trip to Evanston. Not only have they lost each game, but many of the losses are utterly heartbreaking in nature.
The football gods are angry, apparently. Ralph Russo of The Associated Press agrees:
Also, seriously, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the more likeable coaches in the country. Why do the football Gods hate him so?— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) November 16, 2013
It’s not just the losses that are beginning to mount. It’s the moments that generate the heartbreak—specific plays that have gone in favor of the opposition, all stacked together in one implausibly difficult stretch.
Against Michigan in Week 12, misery struck again. The Northwestern defense limited the Wolverines offense to just six points in regulation, and then the final play happened with the Wildcats up by three.
Out of timeouts and tackled in the field of play, Michigan was seemingly out of options. Somehow, some way, however, the Wolverines did the appropriate shuffling in roughly 10 seconds, and kicker Brendan Gibbons knocked the awkward 44-yard field goal through the uprights.
From the holder sliding into position, to the kicker’s routine-less approach, to the overall shocked reaction to everyone involved, it was one the strangest final plays in recent memory.
The kick sent the two teams to overtime, and Northwestern battled, just like it always does. In the third overtime, however, Devin Gardner put Michigan ahead, and that was the final scoreboard move. The Wolverines came from behind and beat the Wildcats 27-19 to mark the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of disappointment.
One of these plays in a season is quite enough, but Northwestern has been on the unfortunate end of a handful...in back-to-back games.
Before the bye week, Pat Fitzgerald watched his team lose on the final seconds to Nebraska on an improbable Hail Mary. Quarterback Ron Kellogg hit wideout Jordan Westerkamp on a game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass, but not before it took the perfect bounce to him first.
The reaction of the Northwestern players tell the story.
Two weeks, two plays you may not see matched for another. And it doesn’t end there.
A week before the Cornhuskers heartbreak, Northwestern lost to Iowa in overtime. On a windy day, the Wildcats tied the game up in the fourth quarter only to watch Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz end the game in overtime.
That’s it, right? It has to be. Not so fast, my friend.
Minnesota edged Northwestern 20-17 the week before it lost to Iowa, forcing two second-half turnovers that proved to be large. It didn’t end in overtime or on some freakish last-second play, but it was yet another close game that didn’t go in Northwestern's favor.
All of these close losses—along with a blowout defeat against Wisconsin—came after the team put forth a game effort against Ohio State. With Northwestern up seemingly the entire time, the Buckeyes battled back and took the lead in the fourth quarter playing on the road.
Down three and in need of desperation, Northwestern had one last play. Unlike its opponents, however, this play went in favor of Ohio State—and the gamblers who took Ohio State as a seven-point favorite.
Of course, it’s not just bad luck that has hampered the Wildcats. They have not played well since opening strong, struggling offensively throughout much of the season. Defensively, this team has held its own, but the defense has had its issues at times too.
Some of this is in large part because of injuries, which have started to add up in a variety of areas. Running back Venric Mark's absence has hindered how this offense has operated. Northwestern has scored more than 20 points just once since September 21, and the dynamic group that we saw a year ago has been unable to get momentum.
But there’s also more than that. Winning a football game comes down to the little things that may or may not happen on a particular play. Luck also looms large.
The football gods work in mysterious ways.
Northwestern has watched a combination of it all completely change its season—all of it unraveling after one of the greatest spotlights in the history of the program.
The latest heartbreaking loss to Michigan is no longer shocking given how things have progressed. At this point, it’s the unfortunate protocol.