Texas A&M held off Northwestern's fourth-quarter comeback attempt, and beat the Wildcats, 33-22, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
Needless to say, there was a feeling of frustration and gloom as a once-promising season ended with another disappointing defeat.
"We failed in (ending the bowl drought), we let everybody down and we know it," said senior quarterback Dan Persa, who became the leader in FBS career passing completions during the loss.
The loss was a tragically fitting end to Northwestern's disheartening season. After falling behind, 30-7 in the third quarter, the Wildcats battled back, cutting the deficit to eight points.
In the final minutes, Northwestern's defense looked for one more key stop to get the ball back with the offense, but Texas A&M drove down the field, led by two crucial third-down conversions.
Despite the strong efforts in the final quarter, it was the lackluster first three quarters which would haunt the Wildcats in the end. Through three quarters, the Wildcats had posted just 146 yards of offense, including just 19 rushing yards.
Meanwhile, the scoreboard showed a 23-point deficit for Northwestern to overcome. The slow start would cost the Wildcats when the clock hit zeros.
"Obviously, we didn't execute some things (in the first three quarters)," said Persa. "I thought we picked it back up in the end when we needed to. I think that lull kind of cost us."
That lull was keyed by third-down failures for the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats were 5-15 during third-down situations, and Persa was sacked eight times for a loss of 65 total yards. NU punter Brandon Williams was forced to punt eight times.
"You have to give credit to A&M," said Fitzgerald. "They had a great plan. Their young men went out and executed. They out-executed us and that's our responsibility as coaches. We have to do a better job next year."
A game that was projected to be a barn-burner started as a battle of stingy defenses.
The Aggies first found the scoreboard on a Randy Bullock field goal—that after what appeared to be a touchdown catch was ruled incomplete.
Northwestern's offense sputtered during the first quarter, but found its rhythm in the start of the second quarter. A 13-play, 77-yard drive ended in with Houston native Venric Mark scoring his first career rushing touchdown, giving the Wildcats their only lead of the game.
Texas A&M would completely take momentum from there. Ben Malena, starting for the injured Cyrus Gray, would put the Aggies on top with a touchdown run on the following drive. Late in the first half, Ryan Tannehill connected with Jeff Fuller for a 26-yard touchdown catch.
After a Northwestern punt late in the half, the Aggies took advantage of a long return, and Randy Bullock's 40-yard field goal would give Texas A&M a 13-point halftime lead.
The Aggies continued to roll in the third quarter. After the Wildcats' offense stalled, Texas A&M drove 93 yards in just seven plays, capping the drive with a Malena touchdown run. After yet another stop by the Aggies' defense, Randy Bullock would hit another field goal—his third of four on the game—which put Texas A&M in front by 23.
Northwestern's luck would change on the first play of the fourth quarter, as Brian Peters intercepted a Tannehill pass, putting the Wildcats in Aggie territory. Kain Colter would find the endzone from a yard out, then Jeremy Ebert connected with Demetrius Fields on a trick play. The Aggies' lead was down to 15 points.
The Wildcats weren't done after that. A quick Texas A&M three-and-out gave Northwestern the football back. A 10-play, 80-yard drive, which included a fourth-down conversion, ended with Tim Riley's first catch and first ever touchdown.
"Our actions (in the beginning of the game) weren't where they needed to be," said Fitzgerald. "We lost momentum there in the second quarter and it carried over a little bit in the first couple of drives of the third quarter."
After the touchdown, Texas A&M had 5:22 left on the game clock. The Aggies would seal their win with a 12-play drive, including two third-down conversions, and Bullock hit his biggest field goal of the game—a 31-yarder—which secured the victory.
Fitzgerald took the blame for the Aggies' two third-down conversions, which were critical in the final drive.
"We got to third-and-long twice and obviously didn't give our guys a good enough call to win," said Fitzgerald. "(Ryan) Tannehill is a great player. He's a great player. Credit goes to him, he's a spectacular football player."
After postgame handshakes, Texas A&M players and coaches celebrated their win, while the Wildcats walked off the field with another gut-wrenching bowl loss and the monkey still on their back.