LINCOLN, Neb. — As the ball floated through the air, it didn’t look like it would reach the endzone.
Down three with just four seconds left, Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg III heaved a ball into the late afternoon sky. It would have landed short.
But instead, after being batted in the air by a Northwestern defender, it landed in the arms of Nebraska’s Jack Westerkamp, who had one foot in the endzone. Nebraska won 27-24.
Immediately, everyone on Nebraska’s bench rushed toward the opposite corner of the field, where they piled on Westerkamp, eventually raising him above their heads. But just ten or so feet away from them, Northwestern players were lying motionless on the ground. With their heads in their hands, they struggled to their feet, staggering into the visitor’s locker room at Memorial Stadium.
The juxtaposition of the two teams at that moment sums up the triumph and heartbreak that sports have the wicked power to provide.
There was Treyvon Green, for example, who headed off the field with a bulky brace on his right knee after rushing for three touchdowns and 149 yards. His head was down as he walked through the tunnel. His eyes matched the red stains of Nebraska’s turf on his white jersey.
“Honestly, I just—I mean there’s really no words to describe it, honestly,” Green said. “It happened so fast. You would think that that’s the last thing to happen on that play. It’s something we work on in practice every week. I was pretty upset, obviously, because, you know, we lost the game. It was tough.”
Fitzgerald said that his team has probably practiced that end-of-game situation around 20 times including mini camp.
“We didn’t execute,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d say that’s disappointing… We work our butts off to try to win on that play.”
After the game, Fitzgerald stood with a stern face at the entrance of the tunnel with quarterback Kain Colter, greeting players as they made their way back to the locker room.
And as he addressed his team, he said that there was really nothing to say.
“What words can describe how you can change your feelings after something like that?” he said. “I told them that I’m proud as heck of their fight… They got one taken away from them.”
Green said that it wasn’t just Fitzgerald that was at a loss for words, everyone was.
“It’s pretty quiet in there,” Green said. “A lot of people just want to be alone at this moment just so they can process what just happened. I’m still processing it myself.”
Green—and the rest of the team—is processing not only the final play, but also the injuries sustained during the game. Most notably, running back Stephen Buckley was carted off the field with a left knee injury. Green, who suffered an injury to his right knee in the third quarter, called Buckley his “little brother” after the game and that seeing Buckley go down made him “a little emotional.”
Football is a game of emotions, or rather harnessing them into a concentrated effort to win games.
On Saturday in Lincoln, it seemed like Northwestern had done that. But sometimes, that just isn’t enough.
Take defensive end Tyler Scott. He had an interception with around two minutes left in the game, setting up Northwestern inside Nebraska’s ten-yard line. Northwestern made a field goal, giving the ball to Nebraska with no timeouts and about one minute left. Scott felt that he had made the winning play, but knew the game wasn’t over.
“You can’t ever think the game’s over,” Scott said. “You just got to go out there when your time’s called, you got to go out there and execute. I mean, we’ve been in these battles the whole time and we know they can go either way. I mean, I didn’t think it was over, but I think it just gave us a good chance to win. Our offense put up three points and left it out there for [the defense] to go out and execute and finish a game. We came up unsuccessful. But everyone gave it their all. I’m proud of my guys, my teammates. Everybody left it all out there.”
That’s the way Northwestern’s season has gone. Just a single play can change a drive, a game or a season. Nebraska converted a fourth and 18 on their final drive. It was a play that could have gone either way.
“You look at all our games,” Scott said, “they’re one, two scores. Every one’s a game, minus one this year. It’s just hard. We’re going to keep working and pressing on. It’s the only thing we can do… We’re just going to work harder.”
Northwestern now finds itself at 4-5 and on the wrong end of five straight games, heading into their second bye week this season. The following week, Michigan comes to Evanston.
“We’re hungry for a win,” Scott said. “I mean, we are really hungry for a win.”