Then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Devin Gardner tossed a 53-yard, desperation pass that was tipped by Daniel Jones and fell into the hands of Roy Roundtree. The completion was a 180-degree momentum flip – it ultimately led to a field goal, overtime and a loss for Northwestern.
"You got a young man back there, it's one play, he gave everything he had to knock the ball down," Pat Fitzgerald said of the play. "The kid made a great play. Yeah, I'd like to see the ball hit the ground. That would be terrific. But he gave everything he's got. Obviously we make that play, it's a different outcome."
Jones appeared to jump a little too early for the ball, which led to him tipping it up instead of knocking it to the ground. Linebacker Damien Proby, however, defended Jones on the play.
"It was just a good play by [Roundtree]," he said. "Nothing we can do. We ask our guys on defense from the get-go to make a play on the ball, that's what [Jones] did. It was a lucky bounce, there was nothing else we could do to stop it."
Both Proby and Fitzgerald also stood by the defensive scheme the coaches had drawn up for the play. Fitzgerald said he would not have changed the call, and that the positioning was exactly what it needed to be.
"I'd like to have everybody that goes to catch the ball triple teamed, that would be ideal, obviously," he said. "But I can't say I would change the call, I just wish we would have knocked the dang ball down."
There were plenty of ups and downs before that play – Fitzgerald mentioned several times that the offense failed to get a first down to seal the victory. The secondary also struggled throughout the game, as Devin Gardner went 16-29 for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Demetrius Dugar did intercept Gardner late in the game, giving NU an opportunity to ice the clock and win, but overall the absence of top corner Nick VanHoose, out with an injury, was noticeable.
Despite those struggles, the game looked like it was going to be a Northwestern victory. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who led NU on a go-ahead drive several minutes before Roundtree's miracle catch, summed up his feelings succinctly.
"It's just a tough way to lose," he said. "I thought up until 18 seconds in the game we were going to win it. It's just a tough way to lose and there's not too much we can do about it."
Proby echoed Siemian, but added that Northwestern is prepared to move forward and learn from the loss.
"I mean, it sucked," he said. "It's not what we want by any means. It's definitely not what we look for as a tea … we don't want to have this feeling happen again. We're definitely going to learn from the experience and keep striding forward."
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