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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Northwestern's upset attempt falls just short

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.

But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed miserably.

Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.

That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.

The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so a stop was likely.

Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.

The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.

The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.

Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.