Wildcats' bowl pain reaching epic levels

Can a curse travel?

Could it float, say, along a lake? Could violent winds carry it, maybe 8.95 miles to the North? Could it board the Red Line, transfer to the Purple and get off in Evanston?

By chance has anyone seen a goat around Ryan Field recently?

The Chicago Cubs may be the most accursed and heart-wrenching professional sports team in the land, but a fellow Lake Michigan occupier, the Northwestern football team, is close to owning that same title within the collegiate landscape. The Wildcats’ bowl win drought reached 62 years after a 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl on Saturday in Dallas.

There is no official handbook to check off symptoms for a sports’ curse. If there were, some of the questions might include:

  • Has your team experienced injuries to its best player?

  • Has your team achieved success, but never the highest level of success?

  • Does a television camera always catch one of your fans crying at the end of a big game because your team lost in such a heartbreaking fashion?

    Northwestern’s football program would have to answer affirmatively to all of them.

    A a player, and now as a head coach, Pat Fitzgerald has put Northwestern on the national football map. These days, the Wildcats consistently compete in the Big Ten, against non-conference opponents and in recruiting. They attract stud recruits who weren’t interested in wearing purple not too long ago.

    The Wildcats have won 30 games in the last four years, beaten ranked teams, become a nightmare for Iowa and played in a school-record third consecutive bowl game on Saturday. In the large picture, Northwestern has turned the corner and become a successful football program.

    Fitzgerald and Northwestern’s faithful would agree -- for the most part. Everyone is roughly 85 percent pleased with what the program has achieved. The missing 15 percent lies in the Wildcats’ lack of a bowl victory.

    In 1949, Northwestern traveled to the Rose Bowl as the underdogs -- yes, they were the underdogs back then as well -- and beat previously-undefeated California, 20-14. Wildcats coach Bob Voigts was only 33 at the time, so optimism for the future must have been incredibly high. But Voigts would only win 22 games over his next six seasons and wouldn’t see another bowl game.

    Voigts’ Wildcats surprised everyone with their bowl win, and it’s surprisingly still the pinnacle for the program. Northwestern has been to eight bowls since 1949, losing all eight in the longest such streak in the country.

    Some of Northwestern’s defeats have been easier to bear than others. Nebraska trounced them, 66-17, in the 2000 Alamo Bowl and Tennessee won, 48-28, in the 1994 Citrus Bowl.

    Most of them, though, have been the kind that make you want to stop being involved in sports. They’re just too painful.

    In the 2005 Sun Bowl, Northwestern jumped out to a 22-0 lead on UCLA and appeared as if was going to roll to a bowl win. The Bruins responded with 36 points of their own and ended up winning, 50-38.

    In the 1996 Rose Bowl, one Fitzgerald missed as a player due to a broken leg, Northwestern rallied from a 24-7 deficit to take a 32-31 lead in the fourth quarter, but lost to USC, 41-32.

    In 2003, Northwestern was ahead 24-21 in the final minutes when Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris connected for his third touchdown of the day with 4:06 left, and the Wildcats fell 28-24 in the Motor City Bowl.

    In the 2008 Alamo Bowl, Missouri tied the game at 23-23 with a 37-yard field goal with 2:49 remaining and won the game with a touchdown in overtime.

    Last year’s loss to Auburn in the Outback Bowl still hurts. The Wildcats fought back from a 35-21 deficit in the fourth to the tie game and had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but a 44-yard field goal attempt sailed wide. Auburn kicked its own field goal in overtime, and Northwestern’s fake field goal on fourth-and-goal was stopped short.

    There are dates Cubs’ fans want to forget, but never can. There’s Oct. 13, 2003 when the Cubs unraveled against the Marlins in Game 6 of the NLCS. There’s Oct. 7, 1984 when first baseman Leon Durham made a costly error against the Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS.

    For Northwestern, 1/1/11 will be one of those infamous dates. It’s the day that will be remembered for Northwestern being oh-so close to winning its first bowl game in 62 years, but again falling just short.

    Even before Saturday, Northwestern’s fate was partially written. Wildcats junior Dan Persa had been one of the most accurate and dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country throughout the season’s first 10 games. In Week 10, as he completed the game-winning pass to defeat a ranked Iowa team, Persa ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and his season came to a crushing end.

    Northwestern’s chances to win a bowl game were much, much greater with him. Another sign of the curse?

    Yet, the Wildcats did still nearly pull off the upset Saturday.

    Just as in the 1996 Rose Bowl and 2009 Outback Bowl losses, the Wildcats fell behind quickly on Saturday. Texas Tech took a 24-6 lead into halftime and had a 38-17 edge in the third quarter, but just like the Wildcats of the past, they didn’t give up. With two young quarterbacks learning on the fly -- freshman Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, the Wildcats answered with back-to-back scores and were within a touchdown with 10:33 remaining.

    Texas Tech fired back, going ahead by two touchdowns, and just when Northwestern had to punt the ball and the game seemed out of reach, the door to hope opened again. Defensive back Jordan Mabin intercepted a pass and returned it for a 39-yard touchdown, leaving Northwestern only down 45-38 with 5:37 remaining.

    When Texas Tech took over, its drive was like dramatic theatre. Twice on third-and-short, the Red Raiders just crossed the first-down marker with a run, and Northwestern’s agony continued. Texas Tech did finally have to punt the ball on fourth down, but as if someone was again playing a cruel joke on the Wildcats, the time left wasn’t enough to go 76 yards in 25 seconds with no timeouts remaining.

    Like that, Northwestern lost again. It would have been almost less upsetting if Texas Tech had won by 30 points. But the Wildcats and their fans have become used to this. It doesn’t make it easier, but it isn’t anything they haven’t felt before.

    Northwestern is optimistic next year will be their year. Maybe it’s a good thing the Wildcats don’t have a scheduled game in Wrigley Field in 2011.