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Monday, January 7, 2013
Best and worst of 2012: Northwestern

By Adam Rittenberg

Our look at the best moment and worst moment for each Big Ten team in 2012 continues with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Best moment: Shock the monkey

Northwestern finally ended its bowl losing streak by dispatching Mississippi State 34-20 last week in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. It marked the Wildcats' first postseason victory in exactly 64 years -- their last came in the 1949 Rose Bowl against Cal. Coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't play up the stuffed monkey like he did the previous year, but after Northwestern had won, the symbol of the program's bowl futility paid the price in a jubilant locker room. Northwestern took control early, survived a rough second quarter, made enough plays on both sides of the ball and, most important, held onto a big fourth-quarter lead to finish off the Bulldogs. Although Northwestern was a play or two away from reaching the Big Ten championship with a chance to play for a Rose Bowl appearance, a young team not expected to do much ended its season with a 10th victory and a bowl championship that should resonate throughout the winter, spring and summer as the hype builds for the 2013 campaign.

Worst moment: Michigan’s miracle

After squandering double-digit fourth-quarter leads against Penn State and Nebraska, Northwestern had another marquee opponent on the ropes in the Big House. The Wildcats led 31-28 and drained almost all of the clock after converting a fourth-and-1 play in Michigan territory. But a poorly executed punt gave Michigan excellent field position at its own 38-yard line with 18 seconds left and no timeouts, Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner fired the ball downfield to Roy Roundtree, who amazingly faced single coverage by Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones. The pass appeared to be too far, but Jones went for the interception and deflected the ball back to Roundtree, who caught it for a 53-yard gain at the Northwestern 9. If Jones had let the ball go or tackled Roundtree for a pass-interference penalty before the ball arrived, it would have been better than what actually happened. The wacky play allowed Michigan to tie the game with a field goal. Michigan went on to win in overtime, hand Northwestern more late-game heartbreak, and essentially eliminate the Wildcats from the division title race.

Previous best/worst:

Minnesota
Michigan
Nebraska