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Clayton Thorson, Flynn Nagel deliver career performances to keep Northwestern’s season afloat

When Northwestern needed them most, the two seniors stepped up.

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

EVANSTON, Ill. — When Northwestern’s offense took the field at its own one-yard line with 2:02 to play Saturday, a season hung in the balance. If NU doesn’t score, it loses a close game to an 0-5 Nebraska team, and its Big Ten West chances all but go up in flames. But, as you probably well know, that’s not what happened.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson led his team 99 yards with no timeouts to score a touchdown and tie a game that NU ultimately won 34-31 in overtime.

“I’ll remember, I think, going down by 10, and looking around, talking to the guys, and seeing the life in their eyes, knowing we can move the ball,” Thorson said. “Seeing [wide receiver Flynn Nagel] tell the guys ‘We’re going to win this game, there’s nothing that’s going to stop us, we’re going to win this game.’ That long drive was pretty special.”

“That was pretty cool, wasn’t it,” Pat Fitzgerald said of the drive. “Ninety-nine and half yards with no timeouts, that’s just as good as you can get.”

Nagel, who had maybe the play of the drive on a 32-yard catch to put Northwestern into Nebraska territory, told Thorson he wanted the ball.

“I think I was just in the zone,” Nagel said. “Big-time play in the game, big-time situation. I just wanted to let Clayton know I was there. We have that trust.”

That trust was on full display Saturday. Thorson and Nagel connected 12 times for 220 yards — Nagel’s career-high — and two touchdowns. Thorson also set a career-high with 445 yards passing. And Northwestern needed every single one of those yards on a day where the margin of victory was razor-thin.

Thorson and Nagel’s heroics come amid a list of compelling storylines. Chad Hanaoka played in crunch time, and had a key first-down catch. Northwestern converted two fourth-and-10s on the second-to-last drive of regulation to stay in the game. Drew Luckenbaugh, in his first-career start at placekicker, rebounded from a bad miss — where he was too anxious and hit the ball before holder Jake Collins had put it on the ground — to kick the game-winner in overtime. Samdup Miller had 14 tackles as a defensive lineman. 14 tackles as a defensive lineman! Northwestern beat Nebraska at Ryan Field for the first time since 1931.

But, in a game where the offense the offense had to do some heavy lifting and come up with big play after big play, it was Thorson and Nagel, two seniors, who provided the biggest lift.

“I’ve been playing with him for four years so I think he does know where I’m going to be,” Nagel said of Thorson. “He knows the skill set, where I’m going to be in the concept. When you play with somebody for that long, the trust is built up over those four years.”

By itself, beating Nebraska doesn’t completely change the narrative of the season. It doesn’t erase the Akron or Duke games, and it doesn’t necessarily mean Northwestern has turned any sort of quarter. But, it was a few important things.

For one, it keeps Northwestern on track to make a bowl game. With difficult games against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa still left, losing to Nebraska would’ve made the path to six wins much more difficult.

The win also keeps the season interesting, at least for a while. If Northwestern can get by Rutgers, which it should, it’ll take on Wisconsin at home in a game that’ll have major implications in the Big Ten West. At the very least, playing in games that matter in late October is a good thing.

More than anything, though, Saturday was fun. It was unexplainable, crazy and stressful too, but still fun.

“These are moments that you’re going to remember the rest of your life,” Nagel said. “Clayton and I hugged it out after the game and told each other we loved each other. I think that’s a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”