As the losses piled up, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald maintained that he had a good football team.
With each loss, it became harder to believe him. While the Wildcats' offense looked legitimate and could move the ball on anybody, the defense simply couldn't stop anyone. No lead was safe.
But with its bowl hopes on the line, Northwestern finally put it all together Saturday in Lincoln. The Wildcats controlled the tempo and outlasted No. 10 Nebraska 28-25, despite losing starting quarterback Dan Persa to a left shoulder injury late in the second quarter.
In a league where road wins are few and far between, Northwestern handed Nebraska its first home loss of the season. Northwestern executed in ways it hadn't most of the season.
The Wildcats tackled well on defense. They prevented big plays. They converted key short-yardage situations on offense. Their veteran offensive line came through. The result was 28 points, 25 first downs and 468 yards (261 pass, 207 rush) against a Nebraska defense that had held Michigan State to 3 points the previous week.
"Myself and the entire offense, we can play a lot better than we did today," Colter told ESPN.com in a phone interview Saturday night. "That’s the scary thing."
So why has it taken this long?
"I don’t know," Colter said. "It’s really frustrating. We've let a lot of games slip away we should have won, a lot of leads we’ve blown. ... Hopefully, we can get these last three games."
Northwestern needs at least two of them to become bowl eligible. The Wildcats finish with home games against Rice, Minnesota and Michigan State.
They can build on Saturday's performance, particularly on offense. They answered two Nebraska touchdowns with touchdowns of their own.
The first came on an 81-yard strike from Colter to senior receiver Jeremy Ebert, who got behind the Nebraska defense and raced to the end zone. Northwestern repeatedly attacked the middle of the Nebraska defense, both with the run and the pass, and had great success.
"We saw they had some openings and a lot of green grass in the middle of the field," Colter said. "Our receivers could get some releases. The middle of the field was open."
The defining drive came after Nebraska scored to cut its deficit to 21-18 with 8:55 left. Northwestern needed to score, and it also needed to take time off the clock. Both objectives were achieved as the Wildcats marched 66 yards in 13 plays, all of them runs, and ended with a 1-yard Colter touchdown plunge.
Northwestern converted a third-and-1, fourth-and-1 and a third-and-goal as an offensive line that has struggled in the power game came through.
"I told them on that last drive it was going to come down to them," Colter said. I was saying, 'How bad do you guys want this? It's a huge game for us. All we need is a couple yards. We just need to go out there and execute.'"
Colter, whose struggles contributed to Northwestern's worst loss of the season, a 21-14 setback at Army, put together his best performance of the season in racking up 229 yards of total offense and three touchdowns (1 pass, 2 rush).
"The sky is the limit for him and for his future," Fitzgerald said. "... We've got guys that stand each other up on each other's shoulders when guys are down. I'm proud of the way he played."
It took until early November, but Northwestern finally looked like the team Fitzgerald said he had.