When Michigan entertains Northwestern Saturday, the game could have featured two teams atop the Legends Division. The Wildcats, in fact, could be 9-0 overall, but two blown leads against Penn State and Nebraska have sabotaged their championship campaign.
Northwestern was 5-0 and held a 28-17 lead over Penn State Oct. 6 having just returned a pint 75 yards for a score with only 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Wildcats were poised to improve to 6-0 and take control of the early race in the Legends Division.
However, over the next 15:50, NU would be outscored 22-0 while finishing with only 40 yards of offense and possessing the football for a mere 3:06. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, would rack up 194 yards of offense and control the football for 12:44.
Like that, Northwestern was 1-1 in Big Ten play, but the Purple and White positioned themselves to once again seize the Legends lead, racing out to a 28-16 fourth-quarter lead over Nebraska in a must-win intra-division game two weeks after their Penn State meltdown.
Again, momentum slipped out of their clutches, with NU mustering only 45 yards of offense, to Nebraska's 160, in watching its advantage evaporate in a 29-28 defeat that dropped Northwestern to 2-2.
At 3-2 in conference play, with three games remaining, Northwestern needs some help to finish atop the Legends Division standings. The Wildcats need to win out and see Nebraska lose two more contests.
"The fans continue to talk about it, what could have been if they hadn't let those games slip away," WildcatReport.com publisher Louie Vaccher said. "Especially Nebraska, they were up 28-17 and dropped two interceptions that probably clinch the game.
"The coaches and players are pretty good about it. The mantra around the team is: 'flush it.' Coach Fitzgerald gives them 24 hours to wallow in pity or celebrate and then they focus on the next game.
NU fans will likely lament those two blown leads if they fall one game shy of competing for the Big Ten Championship, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald is focused on the positives for his team in 2012.
"We've put ourselves in position for a special year, and now we just have to go out and take it if we want it," he said. "We've worked diligently since last January. We wish we were a little bit higher up, no question about that, but there haven't been many teams in our program's history that went into November with a chance to win a championship."
Northwestern isn't favored this weekend and likely won't be when it travels to East Lansing next weekend, but in Michigan, Michigan State and its season finale against Illinois, NU has a chance to beat all three teams and finish 10-2 - the Wildcats haven't won 10 games since 1995, reaching a Fitzgerald-era high of nine victories in 2008.
"The truth is there is a lot to play for," Vaccher said. "They have an outside chance at the Legends title, and they can still finish strong and play in a better bowl game."