There’s nothing quite as unsettling as 48 thousand people suddenly going completely silent.
As Clayton Thorson fell to the ground of Nissan Stadium clutching his knee, raucous cheers, that just a moment before had celebrated a surprising Jeremy Larkin pass to Thorson, turned to horrified silence.
As the trainers trended to Thorson and the cart was brought onto the field, Pat Fitzgerald gathered his players together. Injuries happen, but there’s no possible protocol for this. Losing not only your quarterback but your leader in the bowl game is not something you can prepare for.
For Northwestern, it brought back memories of Trevor Siemian against Purdue in 2014 and Dan Persa against Iowa in 2010. But this time, there were still three more quarters of football to be played. No one knew what to expect. Northwestern could have folded. There would be little shame in falling apart with your starting quarterback, a starting linebacker (Nate Hall) and best wide receiver out for the game.
The Wildcats had to compose themselves quickly. Kentucky still held a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. As the team huddled together, Fitzgerald passed on a message from their quarterback.
“I just shared what Clayton said to me,” Fitzgerald said. “And he said go win the game.”
Northwestern decided that it would do just that. On the very next play, Justin Jackson punched the ball into the end zone to muted cheers. It set the tone for the rest of the game.
As it has for so many times in his career, the offensive load fell on the shoulders of Justin Jackson. In his last game as a Wildcat, Jackson was magnificent, rushing for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns on 32 carries.
His second touchdown later in the tumultuous second quarter to give Northwestern a 17-7 lead at half. But there were still more problems to surmount. The referees inserted themselves into the game, ejecting Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. and Northwestern’s star linebacker Paddy Fisher. The first decision was a major break for Northwestern, but Fisher’s ejection put yet another mountain for the team to climb.
Matt Alviti did a solid job in relief, doing everything he was asked to do in a game no one thought he would ever be playing in. In his last game at Northwestern, Alviti ran for 54 yards, passed for 50 and was able to lead his teammates to victory. It was an emotional and uplifting night for the former four-star recruit who could have transferred, but elected to stay at Northwestern. He finally had his moment.
But it would be the defense that would ultimately save the game. After a questionable play call on 4th-and-1 from the Kentucky 2-yard line caused a turnover on downs, Kyle Queiro picked off a Stephen Johnson pass and tip-toed his way for a touchdown to make it 24-14. Queiro, in his last game for the Wildcats, gave Northwestern one more memorable play.
Still, that wasn’t the end, because of course it wasn’t. After all that had happened this season and in this game, it wasn’t going to end easily. Kentucky hit a field goal to cut the Northwestern lead to 24-17, and then Riverboat Fitz went for it on 4th-and-1 on his own 39 and Alviti didn’t get it. Kentucky got the ball back with 2:31 left.
There would be one last hurdle for the Wildcats to get over, and even that wouldn’t be simple.
Kentucky quickly drove down into the red zone and scored a TD with 37 seconds left, but instead of kicking the extra point Mark Stoops decided to go for two and the win.
Then it all came full circle. As Johnson snapped the ball, all 48,000+ in attendance fell silent one final time. Senior Marcus McShepard and Godwin Igwebuike combined to knock away the pass. The purple side of the stadium exploded in relief and jubilation.
“We knew, even after the pick-six, that it was going to come down to us, somehow, someway,” Quiero said. “Of course, had our hearts racing but it came down to the last play.”
Northwestern had held on. Barely.
“We had to persevere through so much and the guys were the reason why we won,” Fitzgerald said. “They persevered, they fought, they battled and I think it was kind of indicative of the season, we had to fight through a lot this year to get to the ten-win club again.”
It really was a microcosm of this insane season, slow start and all. Northwestern took body blow after body blow, losing Thorson and Skowronek to injury and Paddy Fisher to a targeting ejection, yet it held on. The offense was maddeningly bad at times. The secondary It seemed fitting that the last game of the year would be decided in overtime, but perhaps it’s better that it ended the way it did.
Was it lucky? Yes, but there’s no doubt that in the second half, Northwestern made its own luck.
On Tyler Lancaster, Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro, Warren Long and Marcus McShepard’s last play on the field in Northwestern purple, the defense got the last stop they needed, just in the nick of time. Across the stadium, everyone connected with Northwestern felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
Northwestern survived a worst case scenario by relying on the strength and resilience of a deep, talented team. Next time Thorson takes the field, the stands won’t be silent. They will be even louder than they were at the end of the game on Friday.