By: Ari Levin
Northwestern completed an incredible comeback against Nebraska to come away with an overtime victory by a score of 34-31. Quarterback Clayton Thorson led a 99-yard drive in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the game, and Drew Luckenbaugh made the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Thorson set career highs in passing yardage, completions, and passing attempts, completing 41 of 64 for 455 yards, along with three touchdowns. With his performance, Thorson joined former Ohio State QB JT Barrett as the only two players in Big Ten history with 9,000 passing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. His top receiver, Flynn Nagel, had 220 yards, the most by a Northwestern receiver since 1980, and among his 12 receptions on the day were a pair of touchdown passes.
Kicker Drew Luckenbaugh, filling in for an injured Charlie Kuhbander, embodied the “next man up” mentality. The sophomore hit all four extra points, and despite missing a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter, was able to redeem himself from shorter range, making a 31-yarder late in the fourth quarter and the game-winner from 37 yards out.
The Cornhuskers scored first, early in the first quarter on a long touchdown pass by Adrian Martinez to JD Spielman. The running game was able to exploit holes in the Wildcats defense from the onset, with Devine Ozigbo breaking off a 33-yard run on the second play of the game. Ozigbo finished with 192 total yards, and Nebraska outrushed Northwestern 231-32.
Northwestern responded in the second quarter with an 80-yard drive capped by a touchdown pass to Flynn Nagel. Thorson had as much time as he needed in the pocket for almost the entire game, and he made Nebraska pay as a result.
The Wildcats got a momentum-changing play at the end of the second quarter when cornerback Trae Williams ran free on a blitz and forced a fumble that Earnest Brown IV returned for a touchdown. Nebraska scored on a touchdown run by Ozigbo, but a missed extra point allowed Northwestern to hold a 14-13 lead at halftime.
Northwestern was forced to go away from the run game often, as John Moten IV and Solomon Vault continued to struggle production-wise. But the passing game was able to make up for the deficiencies with Thorson’s 455 yards.
Nebraska had the better start to the second half, with a touchdown in the third quarter and another early in the fourth. The Cornhuskers added a two-point conversion to take a 28-14 lead, but Northwestern responded with a 62-yard touchdown connection between Thorson and Flynn Nagel.
With six minutes remaining and the Wildcats behind 31-21, Thorson led a long drive down inside the five-yard line but was forced to settle for a field goal with 2:26 remaining. After a failed onside kick attempt, the Wildcats’ defense stuffed Nebraska three straight times to send Nebraska’s punt unit onto the field.
From there, it was all on Clayton Thorson, who had to go 99 yards in two minutes down by a score. Northwestern caught a break on the first play, when a roughing the passer penalty gave them 15 yards. Northwestern only committed one penalty on the day, while Nebraska had nine, a key difference.
After the penalty, Thorson hit Nagel three times for gains of 11, 9 and 32 to put Northwestern at the Nebraska 32-yard line. Following a huge Bennett Skowronek reception to move the Wildcats inside the five, Thorson found JJ Jefferson for the touchdown with 12 seconds on the clock, and Luckenbaugh’s extra point tied the game and sent it to overtime.
In overtime, Nebraska came out with conservative play-calling but ended up a half-yard short of the first down marker on third down. They elected to go for it on fourth, but a fumbled snap led to a broken play which resulted in an interception by JR Pace in the end zone, giving Northwestern the chance to win.
The Wildcats ran three times on their overtime drive but didn’t pick up the first down. Instead, it was up to Luckenbaugh, who connected on his second field goal to give Northwestern the win.
The win moves the Wildcats to 3-3 on the season, and 3-1 in Big Ten play, while Nebraska drops its ninth straight game and is 0-6 this season. Next for Northwestern is a road test against Rutgers, who lost to Maryland by 27 today.