It was clear going into the year that the month of November would likely define Nebraska's season one way or another. If the way the first game of that daunting five-game stretch ended was any indication, it appears the Huskers have plenty of magic left in the tank for one last push at a Big Ten Championship.
Trailing Northwestern 24-21 with just over a minute left in game with no timeouts, Nebraska came down to one final Hail Mary pass to try and pull off a miracle. Having moved the ball to midfield with just four seconds to play, senior quarterback Ron Kellogg scrambled around as time expired and heaved the ball 49 yards down to the goal line. Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa tipped the ball in the air amid a cluster of Wildcat defenders, and as fate would have it, it dropped right into the hands of freshman wide out Jordan Westerkamp.
Westerkamp came down with the ball in the end zone, got two feet down, and the Memorial Stadium crowd of more than 91,000 erupted as the Huskers somehow escaped with a 27-24 victory.
"I didn't even know I could throw it that far," Kellogg said. "But thank God for Jordan Westerkamp."
The play is believed to be the first game-winning Hail Mary pass in Nebraska history. The win not only kept NU alive in the Big Ten Legends Division race, but could also be the spark the program needs to finish off a roller-coaster season strong.
"It wasn't pretty, but I'll take it," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Westy had a heck of a play. Even the plays leading up to it. I think he was about a yard into the end zone, and no one panicked. Every yard made a difference there in that last drive Crazy game. I'm proud of how our defense responded. Obviously we started out, those kids were so juiced up, there were a lot of mistakes, missing tackles early on, and the way they came back was special. They flew around and played hard. Believe me, there were a lot of mistakes, but I thought it was a good team win for us. I'm proud of those kids and I'm happy for those kids. At the end of the day, that's all that matters. It ain't about me, it's about those kids in that locker room, and they kept fighting."
Just like last week, Nebraska came storming out of the gates and marched straight into the end zone on its opening possession of the game. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong looked as good as ever in his fourth career start, hitting Quincy Enunwa on a 24-yard pass and reeling off two pretty option runs before scoring on a four-yard scamper.
Northwestern wasted no time delivering an answer, though, as the same tackling issues that have plagued the Huskers all season were back in full force during a 12-play, 75-yard drive by the Wildcats that took up more than five minutes. Quarterback Kain Colter converted two third-and-long conversions to set up a one-yard touchdown run by running back Treyvon Green to tie it up at 7-7.
After looking so good on their first drive, the Huskers' offense suddenly went stagnant for much of the first half. Northwestern, on the other hand, didn't slow down and took the lead on a four-yard touchdown run by Green with 2:35 left in the opening quarter. The Wildcats put up 150 yards and averaged 8.3 yards per play during their first two drives of the game, reaching the end zone both times and racking up 123 yards on the ground.
Following a missed 48-yard field goal attempt by Pat Smith - who had made his first 16 attempts on the season coming in - Nebraska's next drive ended when Kellogg was picked off by Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and returned to the NU 38-yard line. The Wildcats needed just two plays to punch in their third touchdown of the game on another Green run from 10 yards out to push the lead to 21-7 with just over 11 minutes left in the half.
The Huskers finally got things going again on offense and put together a much-needed 11-play drive that was capped off by a three-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to Enunwa with 6:37 to go in the second quarter. Though that 21-14 score would hold on into halftime, things certainly could have been worse for Nebraska with the way the game went for much of the first two quarters. It was certainly a big half for Northwestern's Green, who rushed for 92 of his game-high 149 yards and three scores in the first half to help the Wildcats to 152 yards on the ground.
While Nebraska's offense continued to struggle on into the third quarter, the defense definitely picked up its play in a big way. Between the end of the second quarter and into the fourth quarter, the Huskers stopped Northwestern on nine straight drives and took matters into their own hands when defensive end Avery Moss picked off Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian - who was absolutely leveled by fellow end Randy Gregory as he let the ball go - and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to tie it at 21-21 with 7:10 to go in the third.
It wasn't until early in the fourth quarter that Nebraska finally mounted another potential scoring drive, as runs of 26 and 14 yards by Abdullah got the Huskers into Wildcat territory with a chance to take the lead. However, holding and chop block penalties killed any shot NU had at putting points on the board. Before that drive, the Huskers had committed just one penalty the entire game.
Northwestern also finally started to move the ball on its ensuing possession, grinding it out on the ground all the way up to midfield with just over four minutes remaining. But once again Moss came up with a huge play by sacking Siemian for a 10-yard loss to set up third-and-20. The Wildcats couldn't convert, and punted the ball back to Nebraska with a chance to put together a potential game-winning drive beginning at its own 18 with 3:16 left on the clock.
Just when it looked like the Huskers were on their way to taking the lead, though, Armstrong was picked off for the third time by Northwestern linebacker Tyler Scott at the NU 35 and returned all the way to the 7 with 2:30 remaining. The Husker defense held tough and forced a 21-yard field goal by Jeff Budzien that made it 24-21 with 1:20 to play, setting up the eventual play of the season.
With roughly 45 yards to go to get into field goal range with just 1:14 remaining and no timeouts, Nebraska's turned to Kellogg to lead their final drive. Kellogg hit Abdullah for a 12-yard pass on his first play but quickly faced a fourth-and-15 with only 30 seconds left. Needing a miracle, Kellogg connected with Abdullah who stretched full extension for a 16-yard gain to convert the first down with 21 seconds to play.
Nebraska eventually got just past midfield to the Northwestern 49 with time for one last play, which judging from the way fans stormed the field in celebration should end up going down as one of the most dramatic wins in recent program history.
"It's just about character. You just can't give up. You've just got to keep fighting, and sometimes it's going to work out for you and unfortunately sometimes it's not. I know one thing: if you have a bad attitude about it or you don't keep fighting, you don't give yourself a chance. It shows heart, it shows character, and it shows the type of kids that are on this football team."
The Huskers will try and keep their momentum going next week when they travel to take on Michigan, which dropped to 6-2 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten after being manhandled by rival Michigan State on Saturday.