Another year, another thrilling contest between Northwestern and Nebraska in Lincoln.
And for the Wildcats, another overtime contest, their third in a row.
And a third consecutive win.
Northwestern (6-3, 4-2 B1G) is not a group for the weak of heart. But for yet another Saturday, it is a group of winners. The Wildcats pulled out a 31-24 win in Lincoln that featured basically everything any college football game could possibly offer.
Clayton Thorson snuck in on 4th and goal on the opening drive of overtime and Northwestern stopped Nebraska (4-5, 3-3 B1G) cold on the ensuing drive, pulling out an incredible win. The Wildcats set history on the way: No team in NCAA history has won in overtime three straight weeks.
Justin Jackson ran for 154 yards, Jeremy Larkin added 69, and Northwestern’s defense picked Tanner Lee off three times.
The game got off to as good a start as anyone rooting for Northwestern could ask for. After forcing an opening-drive three-and-out, Northwestern took the ball at its own 41 and promptly drove 59 yards in 10 plays, chewing up 4:18. Justin Jackson, who converted a key 4th-and-1 halfway through the possession, finished the drive off with a filthy jump cut and 17 yard scamper, with Thorson laying a key block downfield:
The teams then traded interceptions, with Kyle Queiro picking off an underthrown ball from Tanner Lee near the sidelines but Clayton Thorson giving it right back on a poor throw deep in Nebraska territory that Joshua Kalu nabbed and ran to his own 39.
Given newfound life, Nebraska pounded the ball down the field, converting two fourth-and-1 opportunities on the ground. Lee capped the drive with a nice throw to 6-foot-5 receiver Bryan Reimers. At the end of an eventful first quarter, Northwestern and Nebraska found themselves knotted at seven apiece.
After the teams exchanged punts, Northwestern’s offense got moving with a 28-yard completion from Thorson to Macan Wilson, who made a nice diving catch. After another quick first down, Jeremy Larkin pulled out his best Justin Jackson impression, showing terrific patience, vision and speed on a 24-yard scoring burst.
Look at the patience from Jeremy Larkin on this touchdown run. Northwestern is set at the RB position for years. pic.twitter.com/RQHzJC6z3u— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) November 4, 2017
It didn’t take long for the hosts to respond, though. J.D. Spielman took a sweep 40 yards and on the next play, Lee hit freshman tight end Jack Stoll off a beautiful play action fake for a score.
Two possessions later, Northwestern took the lead for the third time. Thorson hit Wilson on another big play — this time 42 yards down the sideline — but the Wildcats were forced to settle for a field goal.
Shortly before the half, Lee gifted Northwestern terrific field position, throwing the ball right to Queiro for his second pick. But in a thoroughly confusing decision, Northwestern opted to run the ball, not take a timeout and eventually try a 45-yard field goal. Kuhbander missed, snapping his streak of nine consecutive makes, and a lead that could have been as big as 10 or six was three. The Wildcats went into the locker room up 17-14. Immediately following the game, Fitzgerald admitted his mistake but praised his team for continuing to battle.
The second half got off to a horrible start for the visitors: After a quick first down from Jackson, Thorson missed way high on a short crossing route, and Marcus Newby took the errant toss 49 yards the other way for a pick six. Looking for a quick response on the ensuing drive, Northwestern drove into Nebraska territory before stalling out when Thorson missed an open Flynn Nagel on 3rd and 6. Nebraska embarked on a long drive, but Northwestern stiffened in the redzone. Drew Brown’s kick extended the Nebraska lead to seven, 24-17.
After several punts, Northwestern’s defense — which had been on the field essentially the entire half — made the play it needed. With Nebraska driving once again, Joe Gaziano broke through and rocked Lee, whose pass fluttered into the hands of a diving Godwin Igwebuike for Northwestern’s third interception of the day.
After being unable to take advantage of Lee’s first two picks, the offense did just that at the most crucial of times. The Wildcats went 84 yards on 13 plays — a drive that included both their first third-down conversion and fourth-down conversion of the day. Thorson capped off the drive with a seven-yard burst untouched into the endzone, and Kuhbander’s extra point knotted things at 24 with five-and-a-half minutes left. The Wildcats got a huge stop on the ensuing Nebraska drive and then, following a failed Hail Mary, the teams headed to OT. No, there was no revenge on that play. Yes, there was third straight overtime.
And yes, Northwestern won.
- Both of Thorson’s picks significantly impacted this game only one of of Lee’s three did. Nebraska turned both of Thorson’s picks into points: the first pick not only took at least three points off the board for the visitors, but Nebraska got into the endzone on the ensuing drive. The other Thorson INT was the pick-six. For Lee, his first turnover was answered by Thorson’s first turnover. And the second one only led to a Kuhbander miss to end the half.
- The third-down issues were really concerning, especially considering Northwestern had some success on the ground. Short down-and-distance plays continue to be a struggle area.
- There were times in this game in which the offensive line was simply dominant. Jackson and Larkin had some really nice holes to run through, and Thorson for the most part had plenty of time to get through all of his reads. Improved play up front has been an emerging trend over the last few weeks.
- Northwestern wasted a prime opportunity before the half, and there’s no reason for that. Northwestern got the ball at the Nebraska 35 with 36 ticks left on the clock. A 7-yard speed option run for Jackson should have immediately been followed by a timeout. Instead, Northwestern kept the clock running, only stopping it after a Thorson throw away with nine seconds left. Then, instead of trying to eke a few yards closer, Northwestern simply centered the ball, forcing Kuhbander into a 45-yard attempt. His career long is 40. He missed. Even if the plan was to settle for a field goal all along, there’s no reason to not take a timeout after that first play. Northwestern had found plenty of offensive success throughout the half up to that point, too.
- Kyle Queiro was unbelievable in this game. The senior safety/corner was all over the field finishing with six tackles, two picks and three PBUs.
- Northwestern is bowl-eligible again.