Up 9-6 with the game on the line, the Wildcats allowed Devin Gardner to convert two fourth-and-four plays to keep Michigan alive.
With the clock winding down, Dean Lowry sacked Devin Gardner for a loss of 13 yards, only to see the Wolverines scramble together an improbable last-second 44-yard field goal to force overtime.
Needing to match Gardner's rushing touchdown in the third overtime period, the Wildcats had nothing left. Trevor Siemian was sacked by Jibreel Black back on Michigan's 38-yard line, and saw a heave to the endzone intercepted two plays later. One game after losing on a Hail Mary in Lincoln, Northwestern somehow lost in a more surprising fashion Saturday.
"It just wasn't our day," a somber Pat Fizgerald said after the game.
"The emotions across the board right now — we're unhappy with ourselves," Damien Proby added.
It took both teams 60 minutes to score a touchdown. Northwestern converted three short Jeff Budzien field goals, and averaged 2.9 yards per carry while throwing for just 163 yards in regulation.
Michigan didn't fare much better, scoring only three points through the first three quarters while star quarterback Devin Gardner was held to 19 rushing yards and completed just 56 percent of his passes. The Wolverines had the option to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, but Brady Hoke elected to scrap a field goal try and go for it on fourth down from Northwestern's four-yard line. Gardner was stuffed on a keeper, and with 3:49 to play, it looked as if the Wildcats would hang on.
But Michigan moved the ball down to Northwestern's 26 in a two-minute drill, and as the game's final seconds ticked away, the Wolverines rushed their field goal unit to the field.
Despite a slipping holder and a hurried front line, the ball was snapped in time and Brandon Gibbons' kick was good. The refs ruled the play good, though Fitzgerald expressed frustration over being unable to substitute his kick block unit.
"It happened pretty fast, it was impressive," Budzien said. "You have to get set before the kick. Whether that happened, I'm not sure."
The Wildcats' lone touchdown came in the first overtime period, when Kain Colter converted on a one-yard plunge set up by a Treyvon Green run. It matched Michigan's 11-yard touchdown catch from tight end Jake Butt. Gardner's five-yard rush in triple overtime would be the difference.
Northwestern dropped five potential interceptions and had a chance to recover a fumble just a few plays before the decisive final score. The Wildcats will need to win their final two games against Michigan State and Illinois to become bowl eligible.
"It's pretty unbelievable. It's shocking. It's depressing," Budzien said. "If you had told me we were 4-6 at this point in the season, I would've laughed."