What a difference a couple of weeks can make. In college football, with only 11 or 12 games a season, just two or three weeks can decide a season.
At the beginning of October, Northwestern was riding high, as high as number 16 in top 25 polls and facing mightyOhioState. Two weeks later, after losing to Ohio State when leading in the fourth quarter and then getting blown out by Wisconsin in Madison, Northwestern limped home on Oct. 19 – almost literally – to face a Minnesota team that surprisingly sported the same 4-2 record. Both teams were winless in Big 10 conference play.
Northwestern faced the Gophers without their two best offensive players. Venric Mark, their speedy running back, has been out most of the year with ankle problems. Kain Colter, their dual threat, running and passing quarterback, missed the Wisconsin game and would missMinnesotaas well. The result: a team averaging 39 points a game, including 30 againstOhioState, managed just 6 points againstWisconsin. They scored only 17 in the 20-17 loss toMinnesota.
For theOhioStategame, huge throngs wandered up and downCentral Street, and the ESPN GameDay crew added to the buzz. Not so forMinnesota, as a section of the stands was blocked off by banners. The crowd, still a respectable 36,587, enjoyed a beautiful fall afternoon marred only briefly by a surprise shower in the third quarter.
Neither team could get their offense going for most of the afternoon. Possession after possession ended in punts, causing the Northwestern punt snapper to warm up continuously on the sideline. On the sixth possession of the day, Northwestern’s backup running back, Steven Buckley, playing primarily because of Mark’s injury, broke free for a couple of big runs including a 33- yarder. He cashed in a 3-yard score to give Northwestern a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
The lead lasted until midway through the second, whenMinnesotatied it up on a long pass play. The teams entered the locker room tied at 7 at the half.
During halftime Northwestern’s band treated the fans to a medley of Disney movie tunes, closing with the venerable theme from the Mickey Mouse Club television show before launching into Northwestern’s song and fight song.
Northwestern’s quarterback Trevor Siemian generally shares time with Colter. The two are very different, Colter a shorter, quicker, running quarterback, and Semian a taller, less mobile thrower. Northwestern successfully mixes and matches, shifting between the two – when both are healthy. With Colter out hurt, Siemian’s limitations were exposed.
On two critical possessions in the third quarter, Siemian threw interceptions. With the first,Minnesota’s James Manuel returned for a touchdown. The second led to a fourth-quarter field goal that gaveMinnesotaa 17-7 lead.
The fourth quarter was introduced by Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman on the stadium screen. He joked that he would like to be at the game in person, but Northwestern declared the day “peanut free,” an effort, according to their press materials, designed to open up the game for more fans including those with peanut allergies.
Minnesotamanaged another field goal midway through the fourth, and Northwestern entered desperation mode. They marched down the field, converting not one, not two, but three fourth downs (including a 4th and 14 on a controversial pass interference call) to bring the Wildcats within 6 with two minutes remaining.
An onside kick attempt failed, though, andMinnesotaran out the clock. The Wildcats now sit at 4-3, 0-3 in conference play. It does not get any easier – their remaining games are againstIowa,Nebraska,Michigan,MichiganState andIllinois– five teams with but seven losses between them.
A team that harbored thoughts of a Rose Bowl berth or better now finds itself wondering if it can make it to any bowl at all. What a difference a couple of weeks can make.