Northwestern finished the 2012 season with a 10-3 record and ranked inside the Top 20 in both major polls to close the year for the first time since 1996, capped by the school's first bowl win in 64 years with a 34-20 defeat of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. By all accounts it was a banner year in the dusty history of Northwestern football.
But look at the game-by-game box scores and you'll learn what head coach Pat Fitzgerald already knows - as good as the season was, it could have been even better. The Wildcats started the year 5-0 and appeared well on their way to 6-0 after taking a 28-17 lead into the fourth quarter at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions scored 22 unanswered points, including two touchdowns in the final 2:37, to send Northwestern home with a 39-28 defeat. Two weeks later, Northwestern built a 28-16 lead on Nebraska only to see the Cornhuskers score 13 points in the game's final 5:55 for a 29-28 Wildcats loss. Two weeks after that, Northwestern took a 31-28 lead at Michigan with 3:59 to play only to see the Wolverines tie the game with two seconds left and win the game 38-31 in overtime.
Three games that Northwestern led deep into the fourth quarter turned into Northwestern's only three losses. This spring, Fitzgerald is doing everything he can to prevent that.
"We were 5 minutes and 3 seconds away from being undefeated,’’ Fitzgerald told Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘That’s an incredible motivator.
"We looked hard at the reasons why that happened, and it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to create those habits. So in all of our workouts, we have created 5:03 worth of work. And it just doesn’t come at the end of the workout; it can come at any time where we go into that phase where we need better focus, execution, technique, finish, communication."
To prevent history repeating itself, Northwestern players are wearing last year's failures in the form of "5:03" workout shirts. No one knows what else Northwestern lost in those late defeats - a Big Ten Championship appearance, a Rose Bowl, maybe more - but the Wildcats' 14 returning starters aren't willing to risk finding out.
"It’s a big motivating factor for us and a way for our guys to rally in the weight room and on the field," said quarterback Trevor Siemian.