Evanston, Ill. - There are different ways to lose games. There are the times when a team is demolished and there are the occasions, games slip away when they shouldn't. The former occurred to Nevada last week, the latter happened Saturday.
In a far different game than the September 1 52-10 throttling at the hands of Nebraska, the Wolf Pack coughed up a 14 point halftime lead as Northwestern traveled 80 yards in six plays over 52 seconds in the game's final moments to score the game's decisive touchdown as the Wildcats grabbed a 36-31 victory in front of their home fans.
"When you are a minute away from winning the ballgame you have to win it," Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said. "You don't let a team drive 80 yards."
It appeared Nevada was on its way for a second straight victory over Northwestern with 2:04 remaining and the Wolf Pack up 31-27. Nevada had taken possession because linebacker Nick Fuhr stopped Wildcat runningback Mark Woodsum on 4th and one at the Northwestern 40, seemingly putting the game away. But on the next possession, Nevada did as much damage to themselves.
When Northwestern was down to its final timeout, redshirt freshman offensive lineman John Bender was whistled on second down for a late hit, a costly penalty at any time, but given the time of the game, it was a harsher blow.
"We had an opportunity to burn the clock out," Ault said. "The young freshman had a rough day today."
After the Wolf Pack failed to convert on third and long, Zachary Whited's punt from near midfield which was intended to bury the Wildcats deep in their own territory instead sailed into the end zone, putting the Wildcats at their own 20 with 1:12 left. Four plays later, Northwestern found themselves at the Nevada 13 as Wildcat quarterback C.J. Bacher spearheaded a lightning quick drive with two passes and two scrambles. After one incompletion, Bacher found receiver Ross Lane in the end zone, despite defensive back Devon Walker being draped all over him, for the touchdown.
"We knew we had to make a couple of plays," said Nevada cornerback Paul Pratt. "It was unfortunate for us when all we needed was one stop and we couldn't get one stop."
Nevada quarterback Nick Graziano was sacked in the end zone on the game's final play for a safety to account for the final two points.
Nevada was in position to win the game because of Luke Lippincott who redeemed himself with a 27 yard touchdown scamper with 3:38 remaining giving the Wolf Pack a three point lead.
"I didn't want that to be the end point of the game, my fumble causing us to lose," Lippincott said. He finished with 140 yards and a touchdown with a career high 28 rushes. He was complimented by sophomore Brandon Fragger who had 31 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.
All indications in the first half pointed to a Nevada victory.
After Northwestern took the opening possession in for a touchdown, Nevada went on a 24-3 run over the rest of the first half in an offensive domination displayed by 337-149 advantage in yardage. Things certainly seemed to be going right for the Wolf Pack when with his team already up 17-10, Graziano connected with receiver Kyle Sammons on a 48 yard "Hail Mary" on the last play of the first 30 minutes.
Graziano, was 22-for-35 for 337 yards with two touchdowns. The completions, attempts and touchdown passes were all career highs for the sophomore. It was his first 300-plus passing game.
However, the game's tide did shifted in the third quarter when with the Wolf Pack driving in Northwestern territory, Graziano's pass was intercepted by Reggie McPherson who ran back 38 yards and then Graziano compounded matters by picking up a late hit.
"I just stared down my receiver instead of looking at the defense," Graziano said.
Ault said after the game he detected a momentum shift after that play which certainly did happed as the Wildcats went on a 17-0 run.
Many of the Wolf Pack players afterward conceded this was a much more difficult defeat to accept as opposed to the thrashing they received last week at the hands of a nationally ranked Nebraska squad.
"A loss is a loss," Lippincott said. "But it hurts more when you know you had the team and they are more beatable."