Northwestern restores reliability in the clutch

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a disappointing 6-6 season, Northwestern set out to restore two program pillars that had started to show cracks.

1. Winning close games
2. Performing well in the fourth quarter

Last fall, Northwestern went 4-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, but the record was somewhat deceiving because the team had blown fourth-quarter leads in three other games and lost by wider margins. Opponents held a 90-79 edge in fourth-quarter scoring, which kept the Wildcats out of a bowl game.

Add a 59-24 fourth-quarter scoring deficit from 2006, and the Wildcats seemed to have lost the crunch-time confidence they displayed during former coach Randy Walker's tenure.

"We put a huge emphasis on the fourth quarter, from the minute we got done last season, all the way until today, we've been talking about it," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Football games in the Big Ten are played for 60 minutes, and you've just got to hang around long enough to make the fourth quarter significant.

"We've done that enough times to put ourselves in position to have a special year."

Northwestern can attribute its 7-2 record to much-improved play in the fourth quarter, particularly on the defensive side. The 24th-ranked Wildcats haven't allowed a point in the fourth quarter seven times this season, including each of the last two weeks, and hold a 51-24 overall edge in fourth-quarter scoring.

The lastest example came last Saturday, as Northwestern upset Minnesota 24-17, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left on Brendan Smith's 48-yard interception return.

The Wildcats improved to 17-4 in their last 21 games decided by seven points or fewer. Their three road wins this season all fall in that category and have come by a total of 16 points.

"We've been in that situation so many times, we know what to do," defensive tackle John Gill said. "We have some experience in that situation, we have some confidence, because a lot of times, we've done well in that situation."

Finishing is a theme in every practice, which always concludes with a drill called "the fourth quarter."

The entire team assembles in the end zone, and on Fitzgerald's whistle, each position group runs out to a designated yard line (Gill and the other defensive linemen run to the 15). Fitzgerald gives them a number, and they count off push-ups. The process is as simple as it gets, but the slightest mistake usually means wind sprints.

"It's about staying focused the entire time," Gill said. "We felt like we kind of lost it a little bit last year, so that was definitely something we wanted to bring back. We've done a better job this year of finishing games."

Northwestern hasn't given itself much of a chance to finish games against No. 11 Ohio State, which visits Evanston on Saturday (ESPN2, noon ET). Since losing to Northwestern in 2004, the Buckeyes have dominated the last three meetings, winning by an average of 45.3 points.

Making the fourth quarter relevant will top Northwestern's to-do list this week.

"This is the best football team we've played all year," Fitzgerald said. "We're going to have to play our cleanest, most effective game of the year for us to just compete."