Players hope to shed 'Cardiac Cats' label

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Ever since Northwestern captured a share of the 2000 Big Ten title thanks to several dramatic come-from-behind victories, the program has been known as the "Cardiac Cats."

Close and chaotic games became the norm for Northwestern, and the program built its rep on winning many of them. In fact, Northwestern is 30-11 in its past 41 games decided by seven points or fewer, and 20-10 in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure as coach. Players and coaches welcome the "Cardiac Cats" label and seem to expect white-knuckle games every time they take the field.

Perhaps until now.

"Our fans love 'Cardiac Cats,' but I'm good with not being the 'Cardiac Cats' any more," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi told ESPN.com.

The alternative? "Just step on teams' throats every game," Nwabuisi said.

As good as the Wildcats have been at winning close games, they've repeatedly struggled to put away opponents, even in their best seasons. While they've been on the wrong end of lopsided contests, they've rarely delivered beat-downs, despite being in position to do so. Of Northwestern's 19 Big Ten wins between 2007-11, just four came by more than seven points.

Clutch play might be a hallmark of Northwestern's program. Killer instinct certainly is not. That's what Nwabuisi wants to see change.

"To a point, it's OK to be comfortable being the 'Cardiac Cats.' That means we're composed in those situations," Nwabuisi said. "We're used to being here. But that's something that was happening when we were improving as a program. We were working on being in the game at that point. But our standards are rising every year. We know we're talented now. When we're better than a team, we've got to show everyone else we're better.

"It's not good enough to just be in the game. We should be killing this team right now. It's not good enough to be down one touchdown against this team. We should be ahead two touchdowns."

Like other Northwestern players in the past 12 years, Nwabuisi acknowledges that the team is most comfortable in tightly contested games and those that require dramatic comebacks. But holding leads and playing complete games has been a problem as of late.

Northwestern blew double-digit leads in losses to Michigan State and Penn State in 2010. Last season, the Wildcats blew halftime leads against Illinois, Michigan and Penn State, dropping all three contests. And this is the program that ended up on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in FBS history, squandering a 38-3 lead against Michigan State in 2006 and going on to lose 41-38.

While Northwestern is usually good for one significant upset per season -- last year's win at Nebraska, for example -- the team also has a letdown against a seemingly inferior team, like last year's 21-14 setback at Army, which finished the season 3-9.

"A lot of those games, we let slip away," Nwabuisi said. "We're disappointed in the last couple years."

During Northwestern's five-game losing streak in 2011, Fitzgerald discussed how the "law of averages" might be catching up to his team. Some considered Northwestern extremely fortunate in 2009, when it won eight games, six by seven points or fewer.

Last year, the script flipped, as Northwestern was just 2-4 in games decided by 10 points or fewer.

"We're definitely playing with fire," Nwabuisi said.

Asked about Nwabuisi's comments, Fitzgerald smiled and said, "I just want to win."

"Trust me, I'd much rather be eating hotdogs and hanging out in the fourth quarter," he continued. "It just doesn't seem to go that way at times."

Fitzgerald said the nature of college football, particularly within the Big Ten, calls for a lot of close games. He'd rather have a team comfortable with being under pressure, but he also knows why Northwestern couldn't hold leads or close out games in 2011.

"Offensively, turning the ball over," he said. "Defensively, giving up explosive plays. And then the kicking game not being consistent enough when it mattered. Other years, we had been. Those things fell the right way. A ball that got tipped and picked last year, we caught it for a touchdown maybe the year before."

Like his coach, Nwabuisi wants to win any way possible. But he feels the program can win in more convincing fashion.

"We've got to get that mentality," he said, "to put teams out of their misery."