Northwestern hoping to avoid more misery vs. Michigan

Northwestern has suffered three straight painful losses to the Wolverines. Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's game between No. 13 Northwestern and No. 18 Michigan is sure to leave a few welts.

The Wildcats and Wolverines rank 1-2 in the country in scoring defense, and both have run-first offenses. This won't look anything like those fancy Big 12 shootouts.

"It's old-school football," Northwestern senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said. "We're going to line up and go, and it's either we're going to move you off the ball or you're going to stop it. It's a battle of wills."

The guys wearing purple are prepared to incur some bruises in the Big House. They just hope they won't leave with battered psyches yet again.

No recent series has proved more miserable for the Wildcats than the past three years vs. Michigan. Northwestern could have won every single game but fell just short in all three, and those losses came from truly bizarre circumstances.

To recap (Northwestern fans, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs to avoid PTSD):

2012: The Wildcats seemingly had the game in hand in Ann Arbor, leading 31-28 when Michigan took over at its own 38 with just nine seconds left. But then Devin Gardner heaved a pass downfield that Roy Roundtree tipped up in the air and somehow caught while falling to the ground. The Wolverines kicked a 26-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation and won in overtime.

2013: This ending may have been even weirder. Once again, Northwestern led by a field goal late. But a Michigan got into field goal range with a pass toward the sidelines with 12 seconds left. The Wolverines had no timeouts left, and the clock was running. The kicking team sprinted onto the field -- including holder Drew Dileo's slide into position -- to get off a game-tying, 44-yarder just before the horn. Michigan won in triple overtime.

2014: The infamous "M00N" game in which it looked like no one would ever score came down once again to a single play. Northwestern scored its first touchdown of the day with three seconds left to cut Michigan's lead to 10-9. Rather than try for overtime and torture us all with more bad offensive football, Pat Fitzgerald decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win. Quarterback Trevor Siemian slipped and fell under pressure and never got a pass off.

If Northwestern won either of the past two seasons, it would have gone bowling instead of sitting home at 5-7. So, yeah, those hurt a little.

"It definitely feels like we owe them one," senior offensive guard Shane Mertz said. "It's always a dogfight, but it seems like it always comes down to either overtime of the last play of the fourth quarter. And the past few years, it has tipped in their direction right at the last second."

Which of the three losses hurt the worst?

"Honestly, right now, it's all just like one bad memory," Metz said. "It's like a nightmare."

Fitzgerald isn't one to relive history much. His mantra is going 1-0 every week, and in response to some questions about Jim Harbaugh this week, he said the Wildcats need to stay "focused on us." But he still recalled last year's game with a strong movie reference.

"They kicked our ass," he said. "You pop on [the video], and it's like 'Tommy Boy.' It's not here or here, but there's marks all over the place for us offensively. We got thumped."

One of the great attributes of this year's Northwestern team is its insistence on breaking away from the past. After two consecutive losing seasons marked by more talk about labor unions than football, the Wildcats are 5-0 and have put together arguably the Big Ten's top résumé. So they're not going to dwell on the misery.

"We're a different team, and it's a different year," Gibson said. "Everything that has happened to us before, flush it and play the play. If it comes down to a point where we have to make a play on defense to win the game, my guys and myself are very prepared to make that play."

If the game does go down to the wire, though, you wonder if Northwestern's recent collapses in the series will come back to haunt it.

"Hopefully, it won't come down to that," Mertz said. "We want to dominate the game early and not put our offense or defense in that kind of bad situation."

It can't happen a fourth straight year, right? Wildcats fans had better prepare themselves, just in case.

"That's kind of the humor and the pain of playing this game," Gibson said.