Last week, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald challenged his team to decide whether it was the team that started the season 5-0 with convincing wins over Stanford, Duke and Minnesota. Or, if it was the team that lost by a combined 68 points to Michigan and Iowa. And with a 30-28 victory over Nebraska on Saturday, the answer still isn't quite clear.
When Northwestern (6-2 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) came out against Cornhuskers, the Wildcats, it seemed, still couldn't escape the stench of the last two weeks.
Thorson found Dan Vitale for a 37-yard touchdown to cap off a 77-yard drive with just under 10 minutes to play. After a Nebraska three-and-out, the Wildcats came back with a field goal. Midway through the fourth quarter, Northwestern took a 30-22 lead.
On the next possession, Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong converted a fourth-and-six pass for 37 yards to the Northwestern 3. But the Huskers' two-point attempt fell incomplete.
Taking over with just over four minutes left, Northwestern faced a third and three. Thorson found Justin Jackson on a swing route for a 48-yard gain that essentially ended the contest.
For the first time in two seasons, Northwestern will go to a bowl game.
Three Big Takeaways
1. Clayton Thorson
In Northwestern's season-opening win over Stanford, Thorson's 42-yard running touchdown surprised some people. At 6-foot-4, it's easy to label the redshirt freshman as a pocket passer, but Thorson has great speed and showed it against Nebraska. Those two long runs were the only thing keeping Northwestern afloat in the first half. In the second half, though, Thorson threw the ball well. He racked up 161 yards through the air in second half.
2. Is the defense back?
Not entirely. While Northwestern played well against Nebraska, the defense still had some holes. Armstrong's receivers were able to get behind Northwestern's defense a few times leading to some big plays. Nebraska even converted nine of 20 third downs, a rate much higher than what Northwestern has given up this season-- just under 30 percent.
3. Northwestern's going to a bowl
For the first time since the Gator Bowl victory following the 2012 season, Northwestern has reached the six-win plateau and is eligible for a bowl game. It's a big step for a program that was coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
Overall, this still wasn't the performance reminiscent of the Northwestern team that went 5-0 to start the year. But it was much better than the 0-2 Wildcats of the past two weeks, and most importantly, it was a performance that got a win.