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Pat Fitzgerald laments lost leverage by his Cats

Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (3) takes hit from Northwestern's David Nwabuisi (33) during third quarter Ryan Field EvanstIll. Saturday October 20

Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (3) takes a hit from Northwestern's David Nwabuisi (33) during the third quarter at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, October 20, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:48AM

Nebraska had the market cornered on stupid ­Saturday. The Cornhuskers lost three fumbles and had a recovery of a Northwestern fumble wiped out by a personal-foul penalty. You name it, and Nebraska dumbed it down.

It’s the type of opponent and game that the brainy Wildcats should own, and for most of the day, they did. But then they suffered a crisis of intelligence.

Holding on to a 12-point lead with 8½ minutes left, Northwestern forgot how to put a hard rush on talented Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and seemed awfully concerned about violating the personal space of Cornhuskers receivers.

The result was a stunning 29-28 loss that did a pretty mean imitation of a magic trick: Now you see a Big Ten title for Northwestern, and now you don’t know what you’re seeing. A sliver of a chance for a championship or a pipe dream?

For 31/2 quarters, life was good for the Cats. When Martinez hit Taariq Allen with an eight-yard scoring pass to top off an 80-yard scoring drive, the lead was 28-23 and life was, shall we say, interesting.

But, come on. You’re at home and you’re winning. What’s the problem? Not everything was as it seemed Saturday. For starters, the east and south stands at Ryan Field were filled with red-clad Cornhuskers fans. You would have thought there was a bib-overall giveaway promotion. It was loud in a very bad way.

And when you don’t get pressure on Martinez, you make life very, very difficult for yourself. He threw guided missiles to open receivers again and again against a bend-and-break defense. After Northwestern’s offense went three and out, Martinez led a six-play, 76-yard drive in a little over two minutes to give Nebraska the lead for good.

Throw in some dropped interceptions by Northwestern defenders down the stretch, and it was a wonder coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t blow out a few blood vessels.

“We’ve got to make some plays,’’ he said. “It’s the name of this game. It looked like we lost our leverage. That’s what it looked like to me. There were four pass plays that we were in position.’’

Jeff Budzien missed wide right on a 53-yard field-goal attempt with 1:10 left that would have given the Cats a 31-29 lead, but it never should have come to that.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Wildcats have a fine team, not a great team. But being great isn’t a requirement for an excellent year in the Big Ten. Being fortunate is, and Northwestern doesn’t have to worry about Ohio State and Penn State, neither of which can play in a bowl game or the Big Ten title game this year. Despite all those good things on their side, the Wildcats couldn’t get it done, falling to 6-2.

“We still have all our goals in front of us,’’ said Kain Colter, the Cats’ all-purpose offensive weapon. “We’re not in control of that anymore. Some things have to happen, but we know what we’re capable of. We’ll still be in that conversation for the championship of this league.’’

And to think, the day had started out so well for Northwestern. Cornhuskers fans snapped up tickets and Cornhuskers players fumbled footballs. What’s more American than profit and impending victory?

The problem was that the Wildcats had trouble with the crowd noise, thanks to invasion of red.

“There was a lot of [Nebraska] fans,’’ Colter said. “We had to go silent [snap count] at the end of the game in our own stadium. That’s a first. … We didn’t prepare for that all week.’’

They did prepare for a 2:30 p.m. start. Fitzgerald had scheduled a team naptime to accommodate the late start and, apparently, to open himself to a load of Catnap jokes if Northwestern had been blown out. But the Wildcats looked fresh enough, while the Huskers looked as if they blew off their Football 101 class and slept in for three quarters.

There was some good stuff for Northwestern on Saturday. Venric Mark burst through a huge hole and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. He’s so fast that five yards into the run, it was apparent no one was going to catch him. The Wildcats’ defense played well for three quarters.

But as a whole, the Cats made things very tough for themselves.

“We gave ourselves a chance to win,’’ Fitzgerald said.

No, you gave the Huskers every chance to win. And they did.

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