Fourth-down decisions nearly doom Northwestern in Music City Bowl

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald watches from the sideline in the first half of the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The aggressiveness of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald almost backfired.

Northwestern led Kentucky 24-17 with less than three minutes to play in the Music City Bowl. Facing a fourth-and-1 from its own 39-yard line, Fitzgerald opted to keep his offense on the field instead of punting it back to Kentucky.

Northwestern dialed up a quarterback sneak, but Matt Alviti, playing for injured starter Clayton Thorson, came up short.

Instead of potentially being pinned deep in its own territory, Kentucky was just 40 yards away from potentially tying the score. It took only four plays for Kentucky to find the end zone when quarterback Stephen Johnson scored from nine yards out with 37 seconds to go.

Down 24-23, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, showing some aggressiveness of his own, went for the winning two-point conversion instead of tying things up with an extra point. Johnson looked for Tavin Richardson, but the pass deflected off his hands and fell incomplete, allowing Northwestern to hang on for a 24-23 win.

(via ESPN)

The fourth-down decision from Fitzgerald was the second questionable move of the second half from Northwestern. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats, leading 17-14, had another fourth-and-1, this time from the UK two-yard line. Instead of handing it to workhorse running back Justin Jackson, who moved to No. 11 on the all-time NCAA rushing list with 157 yards in the win, Northwestern called a reverse pass — a pass that fell incomplete.

The defense bailed out that questionable decision. Two plays after Kentucky regained possession, Kyle Queiro intercepted a Johnson pass and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown.

It proved to be the winning score.

With the win, Northwestern finishes the season 10-3 — its third 10-win season under Fitzgerald. It also marks the first time in program history Northwestern won a bowl game in consecutive seasons.

On the other side, Kentucky finished 7-6 and lost its bowl game for a second year in a row. UK hasn’t won a bowl game since 2008.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!