It started out as the classic Northwestern tale this season: Struggling against a winless Nebraska team and falling apart in the second half, the ’Cats seemed destined to let any chance of winning the Big Ten West slip away for good.
But the story ended in shocking fashion, as the Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 B1G) rallied from a 10-point deficit with under six minutes remaining to force overtime and beat the Huskers (0-6, 0-3 B1G), 34-31. A fantastic 99-yard drive down the field with two minutes to go signaled a shift in Northwestern’s fortunes and helped give head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team a crucial win in the chase for the division lead.
Nebraska started out strong in the first quarter, with two drives down the field and a 7-0 lead (after a missed field goal). Adrian Martinez (251 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) was involved with both the pass and the run very early on. Meanwhile, the Wildcat offense started off cold, not scoring any points in the opening quarter for the first time this season.
Northwestern broke out of their funk midway through the second quarter, thanks to a solid 80-yard drive led by Clayton Thorson (career-high 455 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) that ended with Flynn Nagel’s first touchdown of the season. It was a day to remember for Nagel (12 receptions, career-highs 220 yards and 2 TD), whose second touchdown was a 61-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“[Flynn] works so hard in practice, he’s had a great offseason, and he just had one of those days that I don’t think he’ll soon forget,” Fitzgerald said.
The ’Cats defense came in the clutch with a strip-sack later in the first half, as Trae Williams nailed Martinez for his first career sack and Earnest Brown IV picked up the football for a 16-yard touchdown. Northwestern went into halftime with a 14-13 lead after a Devine Ozigbo (22 carries, 159 yards, 2 TD) touchdown rush and missed extra point.
Scoop. Score. Touchdown, Earnest Brown!— Louie Vaccher (@WildcatReport) October 13, 2018
After an Ozigbo touchdown and a missed Wildcat field goal by Drew Luckenbaugh in the third quarter, the Cornhuskers started the fourth strong with a Maurice Washington rushing TD and two-point conversion to make it 28-14 Nebraska.
It seemed that Northwestern squandered its moment: down by seven points, a pass targeted at Nagel bounced into the hands of Nebraska’s Tre Neal for an interception. But even after Scott Frost and his team put up three points for a 31-21 lead, the Wildcats committed to the comeback and saw it through. Luckenbaugh hit a 31-yard field goal, and JJ Jefferson capped off the 99-yard, no-timeouts-remaining drive with a 5-yard touchdown to send the game into overtime.
Northwestern won the coin toss for overtime possession and elected to defer. Faced with a 4th & 1, a Nebraska snap went awry and forced Martinez to recover it back far, where his throw met safety JR Pace for the second time and ended the drive. Four plays later, Luckenbaugh, filling in for Charlie Kuhbander, scored a 37-yard field goal and sealed the comeback, and the game, for the Wildcats.
“It was his turn, it was his opportunity," Fitzgerald said, "and he stepped up and I think really responded incredibly from that first kick.”
It was a stunning game for the Cardiac ’Cats, who finally got to a claim a home victory to their name on Homecoming weekend. Despite some missteps along the way, especially with the run game on both sides of the ball, the team kept composure and had a finish to remember.
“We are not gonna stop working our tails off to run the football," Fitz said. "We have to win the line of scrimmage, we have to run the football, we have to stop the run to win. That’s Big Ten football.”
The team will take on a reeling Rutgers team on the road on the Oct. 20, where they’ll look to keep up their winning streak rolling.