Wildcats head back to finishing school

Northwestern wears the "Cardiac Cats" label as a badge of honor.

Few FBS programs find themselves in more close games than Northwestern. Few FBS programs win more close games than the Wildcats. It has been their M.O. for years and years.

"Close games where it's necessary to be clutch and make plays and win going down to the final seconds, that's something we take pride in," senior safety Brian Peters told ESPN.com.

Northwestern entered the season with a 28-9 record in its previous 37 games decided by seven points or fewer. Of its 13 Big Ten victories between 2008-10, 11 came by seven points or fewer. It began the season with, what else, a 7-point victory against Boston College.

The Wildcats simply don't know any other way to win.

But a troubling trend has emerged in the past season and a half -- and it actually stretches back much longer with this program. Northwestern has built big leads, only to watch them evaporate, often at warp speed.

The Wildcats have squandered leads of 17 points or more in three of their past five Big Ten losses (and all three games that star QB Dan Persa played):

  • Built 17-0 first-half lead on undefeated Michigan State last year in Evanston; lost 35-27

  • Built 21-0 first-half lead on Penn State last year in State College; lost 35-21

  • Built 28-10 third-quarter lead on Illinois last Saturday in Champaign; lost 38-35

Northwestern also squandered a fourth-quarter lead in last year's home loss to Purdue, although it was only four points.

Still, it's fair to ask: Has Northwestern has lost its crunch-time mojo?

"It's a little bit law of the averages," said coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is 19-10 at Northwestern in games decided by seven points or fewer. "At the end of the day, we've won a ton of football games that way. When you come off losing one that way, the sky's falling and I should change my socks and not eat steak anymore and eat chicken like Jobu and all that stuff."

Jobu needs a refill, and so does Northwestern after the Illinois game, where it squandered the 18-point lead, only to regain a 35-31 edge with 1:15 left before allowing the game-winning touchdown.

Fitzgerald and Peters chalk up last Saturday's collapse to poor execution, particularly against Illinois' passing attack. The Illini repeatedly used play-action passes to A.J. Jenkins, who racked up a team-record 268 receiving yards on 12 catches.

"We gave up two touchdowns on three plays," Fitzgerald said, referring to Jenkins' touchdown catches of 50 and 33 yards. "You lose momentum on the road in the Big Ten, it's tough, it's real tough. We made it real hard on ourselves."

Northwestern's problems last Saturday aren't hard to diagnose. Fitzgerald called it "some young players making some young mistakes," and while he didn't name names, safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Jeravin Matthews, both first-year starters, made their share.

Peters, a three-year starter, said part of the learning process as a defensive back is getting beat a few times and finding ways to bounce back.

But is there a bigger issue here? Why has Northwestern been so good in close games and so uncomfortable with big leads? In 2006, Fitzgerald's first season, the Wildcats were on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in NCAA history, as their 38-3 lead turned into a 41-38 loss to Michigan State. The previous December, at the Sun Bowl, Northwestern stormed out to a 22-0 lead against UCLA but saw it completely vanish by halftime.

"I'd like to be able to explain it and give you a simple solution," Peters said. "We're effective in those high-pressure situations, but we have to grow as a team and learn how to play with a lead and learn how to, no matter what the score is, play with our backs against the wall and know that every down and every series is for the game.

"We're taking control as leaders and coaches, and we're looking to fix it."

Saturday night would be a good time to do it. Northwestern hosts No. 12 Michigan in the first of three night games. Denard Robinson and his teammates are likely salivating to face a Wildcats defense that allowed 381 rush yards in a loss to Army and 391 pass yards in the loss to Illinois.

But Northwestern has a penchant for knocking off ranked teams, almost always in dramatic fashion.

"I'm sure the Cardiac Cats will strike again," Peters said. "We're going to try to get a win this Saturday, and if it has to be in dramatic fashion, that's our style anyway, so why not?"