Against No. 11 Michigan State, on a rainy afternoon, the Wildcats bungled their way through several mistakes at critical times in dropping a 31-17 decision to the Spartans at Ryan Field on Nov. 26. For the 25 seniors, the 2011 regular season will be remembered for missed opportunities.
"I can't stand it," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It drives me crazy. It drives me up the wall not to be on the successful end. I expect to win. I expect to win everything that we do. And not to (win) six times this year is disappointing."
The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 6-6 record, not building on a solid 2010 season despite a senior-laden squad returning. Michigan State had already clinched a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, but played its starters nearly the entire game to improve to 10-2 and 7-1 in the conference.
The Wildcats experienced several highs and lows during the up-and-down season, from opening the season with two straight wins without starting quarterback Dan Persa, to losing five straight, to winning four in a row, including at No. 9 Nebraska, to the error-filled missed opportunity defeat to Michigan State.
"It was the tale of two seasons if I've ever seen it," senior linebacker Bryce McNaul said. "Other people's expectations out the door, we expect a lot from ourselves. I know I could probably speak for a lot of my teammates, not just in the senior class, (that) when I decided to come to Northwestern, it was to win a Big Ten championship. So it was incumbent on us as seniors to lead this team, to put ourselves in a position to do that."
Now, the Wildcats must play a waiting game. Northwestern's most likely postseason destinations dwindled down to most likely playing in Houston, San Francisco or Detroit.
Fitzgerald said the Wildcats hopefully get one more game to fix their flaws and build for next year.
"You just keep fighting and believing in what you believe in," Fitzgerald said. "You look at all these games that we've ended up on the short end, we could have won all six of those football games. So that's incredibly motivating, incredibly motivating, but we didn't. So what are we going to do about it? Contrary to popular belief, we don't have a pity party. We don't feel sorry for ourselves. We look at what we did wrong schematically, as coaches first, and what we would do differently for the future."
The Wildcats had an opportunity to pull off a big upset, but couldn't overcome a host of mistakes. Trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats got the ball back but couldn't stop MSU's pass rush which tallied six sacks, including five in the second half.
"Jim Phillips does a great job of building relations with our bowl partners," Fitzgerald said. "Our bowl partners are incredibly attracted to us from the standpoint of bringing the right kind of people to your community and a great fan base that has traveled incredibly well to bowl games. (We have) a football team that will come incredibly hungry to win. Nobody has stopped our offense, the only people that have stopped our offense this year has been us, and defensively when we play the way we're capable of, and don't let the ball get thrown over our heads, we're pretty good."
--The loss to Michigan State snapped Northwestern's four-game winning streak and dropped the Wildcats to 6-6 on the season. The last time NU finished 6-6 was in 2007, but the Wildcats didn't play in a bowl game.
--QB Dan Persa tossed two touchdown passes against Michigan State, giving him 34 career touchdown passes, which ranks fifth on NU's all-time passing TD list. Persa increased his career passing yardage total to 4,968 yards, leaving him 32 yards shy of becoming the eighth NU player to reach 5,000 yards for a career. With 19 pass attempts in NU's bowl game, Persa will become eligible for the NCAA's career statistics and he will almost certainly become the FBS all-time leader in pass completion percentage. Persa, who touts a 73.0 career pass completion percentage, is trying to break Colt Brennan's 70.4 career mark. The NCAA requires a player to have 15 pass attempts per career game - Persa has 596 career pass attempts in 40 games.
--WR Jeremy Ebert finished the regular season with team-highs of 71 receptions for 1,025 yards. Ebert has 21 career touchdown receptions, including 11 this year.
KEEP AN EYE ON: CB Jeravin Matthews -- Led the Wildcats with nine tackles, including seven solo stops. Matthews notched his first career interception against Michigan State.
LOOKING GOOD: The Northwestern offense gained 370 total yards against the nation's No. 3 defense based on total yards allowed. Michigan State entered the game allowing just 257.3 yards per game. But NU quarterback Dan Persa tossed two touchdown passes and 245 yards.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Northwestern's offensive line allowed six sacks, with five of Michigan State's sacks coming in the second half. Late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had a chance to cut the deficit, but MSU sacked Dan Persa twice to end the threat. Northwestern freshman tailback Treyvon Green lost a key fumble that helped wake up MSU's offense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got a long way to go, as far as a program, to get ourselves to Indianapolis. But I don't think we're that far away. I don't think we're that far away at all. And that's probably what's most disappointing to me right now, how darn close we are. And for us not to coach our guys well enough to get over that point is incredibly disappointing for me, for our seniors." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on not settling for a 6-6 regular season record.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QB Dan Persa -- He further cemented his place in Northwestern history. The senior threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Michigan State. Persa lifted his career totals to 34 touchdown passes, ranking fifth all-time on the school's TD passing list.
WR Jeremy Ebert -- Led all Northwestern players with seven catches for 39 yards, concluding the regular season with 71 catches and 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns.
RB Jacob Schmidt had a team-high 39 yards rushing to lead the Wildcats in rushing for the fourth game this season.
WR Demetrius Fields -- Caught a touchdown pass against Michigan State to extend his streak to three straight games with a touchdown reception. Fields hadn't caught a touchdown pass until the Wildcats 10th game this season.
--WR Jeremy Ebert became the first Wildcat to top the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards since D'Wayne Bates in 1998. Ebert finished the regular season with 1,025 yards.
--WR Kain Colter caught six passes for 44 yards against Michigan State, the sixth time that he caught at least five passes in the last seven games. Colter has rushed for a team-high 589 yards this year, caught 454 receiving yards and passed for 660 yards this season.