All offseason long, Northwestern players wore shirts with 5:03 emblazoned upon them. It was a chilling reminder that despite a 10-3 season, the Wildcats still had a lot they left on the table. That time stamp symbolized the amount of time the Wildcats trailed in the fourth quarter of their three losses. It really was not very much considering the double digit leads Northwestern had in each of those games.
This is the specter that will continue to haunt Northwestern, particularly in the beginning of this season. And even moreso when Northwestern has a lead in the fourth quarter.
It was in NU’s first game that this specter raised its head once again. The question needed to be answered immediately Saturday night in Berkeley, California.
Northwestern held a 27-24 lead which became a 27-27 tie after the first play in the fourth quarter, a 38-yard field goal from Vincent D’Amato. This was the exact opportunity Northwestern had been working toward all offseason. A chance to control a close game for the final 15 minutes. There was no going back now.
What Northwestern did was proceed to win the fourth quarter 17-6. The Wildcats outgained the Golden Bears only 168-133 in the fourth quarter. The key was, of course, how Northwestern got those yards. They stopped a Cal drive when Collin Ellis took a tipped pass from Dean Lowry 40 yards for a touchdown and then a 91-yard drive that gave NU a 14-point lead and sealed the win.
The fourth quarter was not about the offense beating the other team’s offense or even simply NU scoring more points than Cal. It was about making plays at opportune times and stepping up when it was called for. And it was called for on several plays.
There was the interception from Ellis. The interception from Ibraheim Campbell. The brave 3rd-and-3 throw from Trevor Siemian that resulted in a 10-yard gain plus the 15-yards for the targeting penalty. The 53-yard catch and run from Dan Vitale. The 50-yard Treyvon Green run and then his 6-yard pile-moving touchdown.
These were all big plays that changed the momentum of the game and kept Northwestern in control. These were plays that may not have occurred last year when Northwestern needed them. Just the fact that these happened seemingly all in a row to help NU prevail seemed to signify that those five minutes from 2012 had been properly used as motivation and flushed along with everything that was part of the bad from last year.
Those moments in the fourth quarter were precisely what Northwestern had to hunger for in the offseason, as Pat Fitzgerald said in this article from Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune:
What we talked about all offseason was, we need to re-take the fourth quarter. Re-own the fourth quarter. That was a positive first step.
One game, certainly is not a pattern . The Wildcats still have to do this again when the chips are down. Confidence breeds confidence. But momentum remains the next day’s pitcher.
What happened against California will not matter the next time Northwestern needs to eke out a win in the fourth quarter or make the plays to preserve the game. It was good to try to get the thoughts of 2012 behind the team early on this season and build confidence. This will certainly not be the last time Northwestern needs to make plays in the 4th quarter to get a win.
The media will continue to allow those ghosts to dance around Northwestern. After all, this team still blew a second half lead to make it a game entering the fourth quarter. That seemed eerily similar to the collapse and rally at Syracuse in the first week last season.
Winning the fourth quarter remains THE goal for Northwestern. It may not be so much about gaining redemption for last season, but about winning pure and simple.
To win games this season and meet the team’s expectations, the Wildcats will have to accomplish this goal and (yes) erase the ghosts from last year week after week.
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