It was classic Northwestern football. Tremendous big play defense, often difficult to watch offense and gut-wrenching decision making helped NU (6-2, 2-2 B1G) defeat Nebraska (3-5, 1-3 B1G) 30-28 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday.
With its sixth win of the season, Northwestern is officially bowl eligible. The ‘Cats have not played in a bowl game since 2012, when they went 10-3 and defeated Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl. In what has been a rollercoaster ride of a season thus far, a guaranteed bowl game is a huge deal for NU.
The Wildcats started the season 5-0, but after getting whooped by Michigan and Iowa in back-to-back weeks, there was uncertainty about the rest of the season. Well, the good news is that NU seems to have returned to normal. The bad news, however, is that for the ‘Cats, “normal” is unlike any other brand of football in the nation.
Consider how, at half, redshirt freshman QB Clayton Thorson was an abysmal 4-10 with 16 yards passing while star sophomore RB Justin Jackson had just four carries for four yards. For any other team, these numbers would represent disaster. But for Northwestern, they represented a 17-12 lead at halftime.
A Nick Van Hoose 72 yard interception return TD in the second quarter spurred the ‘Cats, and was the sole reason for the halftime lead. NU’s defense really struggled in the past two weeks, giving up 78 points combined and looking helpless against Michigan and Iowa. NU won its first five games because of its phenomenal defense, creating turnovers and shutting the door on third downs. While far from perfect today, Van Hoose’s pick six and senior Dean Lowry’s relentless six tackle for loss performance indicated a return of some of those extraordinary defensive abilities.
Thorson also broke off rushes of 68 and 49 yards in the first half, as well as a one yard rushing TD. Thorson’s legs were the ‘Cats only form of offense in the first half, as the QB’s rush yards accounted for 106 out of the 128 total yards NU recorded at half.
To get a better idea of how absurd this NU football team is, look at this tweet, which was sent out early in the fourth quarter.
Some more ridiculous stats: Plays: Nebraska 72 NU 31 First downs: Nebraska 19 NU 6 TOP: Nebraska 33:17 NU 11:48 NU IS ONLY DOWN 22-20— NBN Sports (@nbn_sports) October 24, 2015
Basically, NU had no business being down only two early in the fourth. A few big Thorson runs and a 72 yard pick six were the only reason the ‘Cats still had a chance.
But then, Thorson came to life. The young signal caller orchestrated a magnificent 77-yard TD drive, in which he went 4-6 for 66 yards, ending in a beautiful 37-yard TD pass to the always-reliable senior Dan Vitale. It was a near-perfect drive from the never-perfect redshirt freshman. Thorson gets a lot of criticism and most is deservedly so, but he has shown the ability to make big plays whenever the ‘Cats need them.
Up 27-22 with 10 minutes to play, Northwestern did an incredible job of closing the game out. Jack Mitchell knocked in a field goal to put the ‘Cats up 30-22, but Nebraska came right back, as the mobile Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong ran in a TD. The two-point conversion, however, was no good and the Wildcats would run the clock out successfully, sealing the victory.
All in all, it was an extremely encouraging victory for NU. After two miserable performances, the Wildcats season looked like it would fall apart completely. While far from perfect, this team did everything it had to do to win today and showed some true fight along the way. With only two losses, a guaranteed bowl appearance, and perhaps its two toughest opponents behind them, the ‘Cats have shown that they aren’t done just yet.