Just call Northwestern the runless wonders. And call them winners.
Despite a sputtering running game that again left them with a one-dimensional offense, the Wildcats pulled out a 34-31 overtime victory on Saturday at Ryan Field that left winless Nebraska frustrated.
Down 31-21, Northwestern scored twice in the final 2:27 of an entertaining and dramatic game. Taking over at their own 1 yardline with 2:02 left, the Cats marched 99 yards in eight plays, tying the game 31-31 with 12 seconds left on a five-yard pass to J.J. Jefferson from Clayton Thorson, who had a career day despite two interceptions.
“That’s about as good as you can get,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think I’ve ever put them 99½ yards, no timeouts, two minutes to go in practice. Obviously, we put ourselves in a hole. To have the guys be resilient and make some huge plays down the stretch, that’s absolutely spectacular. Clayton managed it like a senior quarterback, like an NFL player, a pro.’’
Northwestern (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten), which faces a Wisconsin-Notre Dame-Iowa gauntlet after this week’s trip to Rutgers, has given itself a chance to salvage a solid season.
“I think this could really inspire us to keep working,’’ said defensive end Samdup Miller, who led NU with 14 tackles. “A win like this, it shows we have the guts, no matter the situation, to keep fighting.’’
The Cornhuskers (0-6, 0-4), who now are saddled with their worst start in school history, botched the first possession of the overtime. That allowed NU to win with a 37-yard field goal by Drew Luckenbaugh, who was 2-for-3 in his college place-kicking debut subbing for injured Charlie Kuhlbander
After the game-winner, teammates rushed Luckenbaugh, who shook off a hurried shank on his first field-goal attempt.
“I was a little excited to go out there for the first one,’’ said Luckenbaugh. “As I was growing up, we had a saying, `Fix it and forget it.’ I just moved on and fixed it for the next one.’’
NU won despite rushing for 32 yards on 23 carries. Last week, it ran eight times for 20 yards in its 29-19 win at Michigan State.
“That hasn’t really been our recipe around here,’’ said Fitzgerald, who lost Justin Jackson to the NFL in the off-season and Jeremy Larkin for medical reasons this fall. “Right now, it’s Clayton Thorson the thrower. You have to adapt. That’s where were at.’’
It worked Saturday. Thorson completed 41 of 64 for a 455 yards—all career-highs—and tied his career high with three touchdowns.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s a challenge,’’ Thorson said of throwing against a defense that’s stacked for the pass because the run isn’t effective. “They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do. It’s just who’s better.’’
Thorson got a huge boost from receiver Flynn Nagel, who caught 12 passes for a career-high 220 yards, including 21- and 61-yard touchdowns.
“I’ll remember going down by 10, and looking around and seeing the life in the guys’ eyes, knowing we can move the ball,’’ Thorson said when asked what he’ll recall about this game at future homecomings. “Seeing Flynn tell the guys, `We’re gonna win this game. Nothing’s going to stop us.’ That long drive was pretty special. [Nagel] was out of his mind. On that last drive, he said, `Throw me the ball. This is why I’m here.’ ’’
Nagel broke into a smile when asked about that moment.
“That’s the most fun football game I’ve ever been a part of,’’ the senior from Lemont said. “A come-from-behind win. . . just trusting all the guys around me, that’s what it comes down to. I think I was just in the zone. We have so many playmakers. Trust is the biggest thing.’’
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