Alamo Bowl Thriller is Heartbreaker for Northwestern

The 2008 Alamo Bowl didn't sell quite as many tickets as in recent years, as a fair number of empty seats were plainly obvious. But the game was easily one of the most thrilling contests of the 2008 bowl season so far, as the heavily favored Missouri Tigers managed to pull out a 30-23 overtime win over the determined but not quite good enough Northwestern Wildcats. The win gave Mizzou back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history. The loss left Northwestern still in search of their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Each team had a corner of rabid fans sitting by their respective bands, while the middle of the field seats seemed preoccupied by local fans who had less of a stake in the contest. Such are the dynamics of college bowl games. But everyone got their money's worth with this game. Northwestern controlled the first half, but blew a couple of scoring opportunities and therefore held only a 10-3 lead shortly before halftime. Mizzou's All-American dynamo Jeremy Maclin took a 75-yard punt return back for a TD right before the half though to tie the game 10-10 at halftime.

Veteran observers might have expected the 12-point underdog Wildcats to fold at that point, but these aren't the "Mildcats" of old. Northwestern came out and scored the first points of the second half on a 46-yard TD pass from C.J. Bacher to Rasheed Ward. But kicker Amado Villareal bounced the extra point off the goalpost, leaving the Wildcats with only a 16-10 lead. It's a shame that this miss will haunt Villareal and Northwestern for the next year, and possibly much longer, but that's big time college sports.

Mizzou scored to go up 17-16, and then added a 43-yard field goal from Jeff Wolfert for a 20-16 lead. Northwestern came back with a 23-yard TD pass from Bacher to Ross Lane to go back on top 23-20 and seize the momentum at the end of the third quarter. The purple-clad Northwestern fans may not have brought quite as many fans to San Antonio as some of their Big 10 brethren have in recent years, but the contingent that came was as loud and raucous as you'll find in a second-tier bowl game.

The Northwestern defense held Mizzou's ace QB Chase Daniel in check for much of the game, intercepting him three times. But Daniel led the Tigers down the field for a 37-yard FG by Wolfert that tied the game at 23 with 2:49 to go. Wolfert then had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but pushed a 44-yard attempt wide that could have won it. Northwestern had a new lease on life, and won the overtime coin toss, which meant they got to choose to go on defense first. The flip side was that Mizzou was able to choose for the action to take place at their end of the field, which became a factor.

Daniel hit Maclin for a 7-yard TD pass on the first possession of overtime that gave the Tigers a 30-23 lead. But with the way this game had gone, most were expecting double-overtime. The Mizzou fans showed they could be plenty loud and raucous themselves as their cheering reached a fever pitch on the following third-down play that saw a ferocious Tiger blitz sack Northwestern's Bacher, who also fumbled. The Wildcats recovered but were left with a desperate fourth-and-goal from the 32-yard line for the game.

Bacher's subsequent heave into the end zone was knocked down, and the Tigers stormed the field to celebrate. Mizzou's fans exploded with joy, as the Big 12 seized early superiority over the Big 10 this bowl season. The conferences will meet again when the No. 3 ranked Texas Longhorns take on the No. 10 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl on January 5. Vegas has established the Longhorns as 10-point favorites, but if the Alamo Bowl is any indication, expect another down-to-the-wire thriller in Arizona. A fair number of Longhorn fans were in the house at the Alamo Bowl, as were a handful of Buckeyes, both rooting for their conference siblings to uphold the honor of the conference.

The 2008 Alamo Bowl will surely rank as one of the most heartbreaking contests in school history for Northwestern. One could plainly see this disappointment on the faces of the purple-clad fans as they exited the Alamodome. But they can take heart in how it seems that 34-year-old head coach Pat Fitzgerald has clearly got the Wildcats headed in the right direction just to be in such a situation. Mizzou on the other hand loses Daniel and star tight end Chase Coffman (who made several amazing catches) to graduation, and likely Maclin as well to early NFL departure. Whether they can win big without these stars next season is a major question mark. It will be interesting to track how the two programs fare next season.


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