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TELANDER: Poor Northwestern just can’t figure out how to close games

Northwestern defensive lineman Tyler Scott holds ball up after causing fumble by Ohio State quarterback BraxtMiller namduring first half an

Northwestern defensive lineman Tyler Scott holds the ball up after causing a fumble by Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller namduring the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: November 7, 2013 6:56AM

Northwestern knows how to carry a lead into the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats led all three games they lost last year — Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan — and they were ahead of No. 4 Ohio State in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Ryan Field.

In fact, they were ahead twice, first at 23-20, then at 30-27 after NU quarterback Trevor Siemian scrambled niftily and threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Cameron Dickerson.

But it’s all about finishing, isn’t it?

They had played hard and tough and clever. Who else but Northwestern has a starting quarterback like Kain Colter, an agile field general who passes, runs, and catches TD passes? Maybe in the sandlot behind your house there’s a kid like him, but not in college ball.

But then, how many teams have an offensive line like Ohio State’s, averaging 6-51/2, 310, or a cornerback like Bradley Roby, the human blur who broke in and blocked an NU punt and recovered it for a touchdown in the first quarter and ran down receiver Rashad Lawrence in the fourth after a 67-yard gain?

Ohio State hadn’t lost in its last 17 games, and there’s a reason why. It can afford to play poorly and still win tight games just by out-talenting the other teams. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller has already made memories of former star Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the absurd trinkets-for-tattoos scandal vanish like old smoke.

So there was No. 16 Northwestern, in front of a packed house, giving up a squeaker of a rushing TD to running back Carlos Hyde late in the fourth quarter to fall behind 34-30.

There was time for another drive, but it ended with the Ohio State defensive line stopping Colter on a fourth-and-one with under three minutes to go. Coach Pat Fitzgerald called for a review — it was that close — but the ruling on the field stood, and that was it.

Urban Meyer and his team jogged to the north end of the field and saluted their thousands of red-shirted fans, while the Wildcats headed back into the tunnel and toward the locker room that is not far from the large sign that reads ‘‘Chicago’s Big Ten Team.’’ That’s Northwestern, you see, and not, grrr, Illinois. That intra-state battle is another thing entirely, but let’s say that Northwestern has made its mark in games that it has played against all but the very best.

Fitzgerald took the football handoff from the late Randy Walker, who got a toss from his predecessor, Gary Barnett, and suddenly Northwestern is a program to be reckoned with year in and year out.

But it’s not there yet. Those tantalizing fourth-quarter leads show what could be. All offseason Fitzgerald preached about the last silly minutes of games, of closing out, of slamming the door. And it’s close now. Oh, so close. NU can beat the football colleges; it just can’t get past the factories.

There were so many good plays and things to be encouraged about in this see-saw game. There was the wonderfully-named Chi Chi Ariguzo’s interception of Miller’s pass in the second quarter to kill a Buckeye drive.

There were Colter and Siemian combining to complete 19 of 23 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown (to Colter) through three quarters.

There was defensive end Tyler Scott’s sacking of Miller, and forcing and recovering the fumble. There was the formerly injured scatback Venric Mark gaining over 100 yards rushing and receiving.

‘‘Every guy who stepped on the field put everything out there,’’ Colter said. ‘‘Nothing left.’’

Indeed, there was nothing to be ashamed of for Northwestern in this huge game, one some people claim was the biggest in its history. That may be going a little too far, but a win could have made it seem that way.

Maybe it was Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel appearing on the end zone Jumbotron just before the fourth quarter started that was the dart in the balloon. Rahm is part of the Chicago’s Big Ten Team campaign, we’re guessing. But he got booed like that huge red Buckeye nut guy did every time he neared the purple-clad Northwestern faithful in the west stands.

It wasn’t the best performance ever by an NU team, but it wasn’t the worst, by a long shot.

Just like a bar that’s open late, it’s all about closing now. That’s all that’s left.


Twitter: @ricktelander

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