Almost immediately after Northwestern lost – heck, maybe even before – the comparisons began.
Many thought the 29-28 defeat at the hands of Nebraska resembled the events of old: NU races to a multiple-possession lead before collapsing.
This was different. Let's not toss about negative clichés because that would change the story.
NU lost, but the Cats did not fall apart. They ran into a better team – or at least a team that played better today – and came up just short.
To reduce this one to the choke column would be to ignore the events of those fateful 60 minutes that might keep NU from a Big Ten title game appearance.
I watched an NU team that played with strict attention to fundamentals, competed with veracity and challenged a talented Nebraska team.
I watched the Cats, up 28-16, kick off to a team whose quarterback was playing out of his mind. It felt unsteady simply because Taylor Martinez conquered the NU defense for 60 minutes.
It was arguably the best game by any opposing player so far this season. Martinez threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns against a much-improved NU defense. His receivers towered over the depleted secondary. Meanwhile, running back Ameer Abdullah anchored a multifaceted attack with 101 yards on the ground.
To claim that NU choked would either imply that the Cats outplayed Nebraska, which is far from the truth. Or on the other hand, it might mean they played significantly worse late in the game. Neither one happened.
Take for example, the moment NU got the ball back with its lead cut to 28-23. Trevor Siemian stepped under center. Siemian, the beneficiary of a borderline unjust offensive game plan, was overwhelmed by a strong Huskers secondary. He managed 116 yards total. The running game hardly fared much better. Aside from the 80-yard Venric Mark touchdown scamper, the Cats struggled to move the ball on the ground. The offense struggled for most of the game.
So here was Siemian under center. A three-and-out followed. One of 12 Brandon Williams punts came after. And then Martinez completed every pass he threw in the game-winning touchdown drive.
Wait, that constitutes a choke? Letting a quarterback playing the game of his life win a game? Please.
Any discussion about the coaches has to revolve around the bizarre quarterback controversy. But that is a reality of this team. For whatever reason, Siemian will take the majority of snaps and air the ball out – regardless of the lousy early returns. But aside from that, what is there to complain about?
Pat Fitzgerald preaches the importance of turnovers and the Cats listened. Even as NU struggled, the team remained in the game by executing the little things. When a strong Nebraska team erred, the Cats were ready to capitalize. Although Martinez picked apart the secondary, the Huskers scored only 29 points, their lowest total this season.
To call this a collapse would be an insult to both teams. Nebraska rode its superb quarterback play and solid defense to a comeback win. And Northwestern failed to break through against a more talented opponent.
But I left Ryan Field after a thriller knowing that both teams played an impressive football game.
NU faced the pressure of a national spotlight and delivered a heck of a game. Sure, they wilted. Just like Jeff Budzien's 53-yard field goal attempt, they narrowly missed. One team had to lose.
It may be difficult for NU to shake off its reputation of blowing leads. Saturday, the Cats ran into a tough opponent that regained its stride in the waning minutes.
NU watched a fourth-quarter lead slip away in another tight game. On this Saturday, unlike some others, that was okay. In football, it happens.