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Northwestern overcomes mistakes, running game to beat Nebraska in thrilling fashion

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With over 480 total yards for both Nebraska and Northwestern, offense stole the show. Northwestern squeaked by on a game-winning field goal by Drew Luckenbaugh after putting together a 99 yard touchdown drive to force overtime.

Last week’s victory over Michigan State was an ideal turning point for Northwestern’s season. If all went according to plan, Northwestern would go on to to beat a winless Nebraska, roll over lowly Rutgers and give Wisconsin a run for its money in a showdown to decide the Big Ten West. For the majority of the game Saturday, it looked like the Cornhuskers would ruin that plan.

But, after being down 14 points in the second half, and after coverting two fourth-and-10s on a field goal drive to cut the Cornhusker lead to seven, Northwestern put together a 99.5-yard drive to force overtime, before Drew Luckenbaugh — a walk-on kicker making his first-career start — stepped up to seal the deal with a 37-yard field goal to win 34-31 in overtime.

There were many bright spots in the game against Nebraska: namely, Flynn Nagel’s 61 yard touchdown catch, Trae Williams’ sack and forced fumble (ending with Earnest Brown’s recovery for a touchdown), and JR Pace’s endzone interception. Oh, and Clayton Thorson threw for a career-high 455 yards on 64 attempts.

There were negatives, though. Northwestern’s rushing defense couldn’t seem to make a stop, surrendering three rushing touchdowns in total. Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo made his mark: he took it to the house two times, along with 159 rushing yards on 22 attempts — good for a 7.2 yard average. Adrian Martinez threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, but, at times, he was a dynamic force that Northwestern couldn’t handle, with a quarterback rating of 129.7 for the day. He tossed a touchdown, extended plays with his legs and hit his spots the majority of the game.

“We have got to tackle better. I thought we missed more tackles today than we have in awhile. I’ll tip my hat and obviously give Nebraska a lot of credit,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

On offense, Northwestern sputtered; it had trouble getting the engine going early on, but it was humming smoothly late in the game. Thorson had some great plays: a slew of medium gains and a couple of plays that made it big. He finished it out with a rating of 133. Against Michigan State, the Thorson that some pundits predicted to be a first-round NFL pick not too long ago was on full display. He was calm, cool, and collected, throwing for nearly 400 yards with pinpoint accuracy to secure a much-needed Northwestern win. The story wasn’t the exact same this week. Two of Thorson’s throws fell into the hands of Nebraska defenders, though one came because Flynn Nagel couldn’t get out of his break.

“I think there were some plays that he would like to have back,” Fitzgerald said in the postgame press conference. “When you have a younger quarterback, usually the finger starts getting pointed. And to quote Coach [Randy] Walk[er], he is the ultimate thumb pointer. He takes responsibility for everything that he does, and he does it with just class and humility.”

But, again, when it came to crunch time, Thorson got the job done. “Clayton managed it like a senior quarterback—like an NFL player.”

The real problem, however, was the rushing game. With just over 30 yards of total team rushing and a 1.4 average yard per rush, Northwestern became a one-dimensional team, making it much harder on Thorson. “Right now, it’s Clayton Thorson the thrower,” Fitzgerald said in a reference to Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier. “I’m a neck rolls ’90s guy. We have to win the line of scrimmage, we have to run the football, and we have to stop the run to win. That’s Big Ten football. We are deficient there right now.”

Through close to three quarters of play, it looked like the storyline would be that Northwestern was inconsistent and disappointing again. Taking a closer look at the game, those things are still true. But Northwestern won, and winning alleviates those narratives. But, in the grand scheme of the season, winning is the only thing that matters, and narratives take a back seat.

See you in a week, Rutgers.