Northwestern stuns No. 9 Nebraska 28-25

Colin Becht

Northwestern found itself in familiar territory Saturday evening: the Wildcats led a ranked opponent in the fourth quarter, but their lead had shrunk.

This time, however, Kain Colter refused to let NU fold. The Cats (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) kept pressing offensively and held on for a 28-25 upset of No. 9 Nebraska.

“I’ve been singing (Colter’s) praises all year, probably more so than I ever have any other player, just because he deserves it,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s earned that. The sky’s the limit for him and for his future.”

When the Cornhuskers (7-2, 3-2) closed the margin to 21-18 midway through the fourth quarter, the sophomore quarterback/wide receiver led the Cats 66 yards down the field, consistently moving the chains with his feet. Colter kept the ball on a crucial fourth-and-one at the Nebraska 18-yard line when Fitzgerald kept the offense on the field rather than opt for a field goal.

“I just felt like that was the time to go for the win,” Fitzgerald said.

The gamble paid off as Colter picked up the first down, allowing the Cats to run more time off the clock before Colter ultimately broke into the end zone from a yard out for what proved to be the winning score. It was a signature drive for a developing field manager.

“He just stayed within the framework of the offense, to take advantage of the clock, to do the things that winning quarterbacks do,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s a lot of confidence, not only in Kain’s ability to play quarterback, but also when the ball is in his hands, usually good things happen.”

As the Cornhuskers kept the pressure on the Cats with enough offense and clutch plays of their own to keep the game close, Colter answered to break the momentum.

After Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez hit wide receiver Tim Marlowe to bring the game to 14-10 and sophomore kicker Jeff Budzien missed a 45-yard field goal wide left, the NU defense forced a punt, giving the Cats’ offense another chance. Colter struck back to prevent another blown opportunity of the type that has cursed NU this season. He found senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert across the middle of the field for an 81-yard touchdown.

“We had play action, and the safety to the field bit down and the safety to the boundary didn’t get over to the field,” Colter said. “Jeremy had an inside post, and the middle of the field was open.”

The multifaceted Colter finished the game with 115 yards through the air, 57 yards on the ground and he caught three passes for 57 yards with a combined three touchdowns. None of those scores was more spectacular than when he scored on a three-yard run, rolling out to the right before diving and nipping the pylon with the ball. Even Colter said he had no idea how he managed to score on that play.

“He’s a special dude,” redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “I sure as heck haven’t been around a player that can do as much as he has.”

Colter received the bulk of the snaps behind center after senior quarterback Dan Persa suffered a left shoulder injury in the second quarter when he was brought down by defensive end Eric Martin. Though Persa returned to the field for NU’s next drive, he left once again late in the first half after re-aggravating his shoulder on a 10-yard rush.

Fitzgerald offered no details on the injury or a prognosis for the first team All-Big Ten signal caller.

As fantastic as Colter played in the second half, it was the defense that built the Cats’ early momentum. NU held Nebraska to just three points in the first half by coming up with a pair of clutch plays in the red zone.

Junior linebacker David Nwabuisi forced a crucial fumble from running back Rex Burkhead at the NU 6, and senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews jarred the ball loose from Cornhuskers wide receiver Quincy Enunwa at the 19.

“Any turnover in the red zone is critical,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a game-changer.”

Those fumbles and three punts helped NU take a lead into halftime despite scoring just one touchdown on a two-yard run by senior running back Jacob Schmidt.

The Cats’ run defense hampered an explosive Nebraska ground game as Burkhead was held to 69 yards on the ground, well below his average of 110 yards per game. NU’s front seven got pressure when it mattered most, like when junior defensive end Quentin Williams brought down Burkhead behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-two midway through the third quarter.

The win was an especially emotional one for Fitzgerald, who passed Randy Walker on the all-time wins list with his 38th, the second most by a NU head coach.

Fitzgerald took over the head coaching job six years ago when Walker died of a heart attack two months before the start of the 2006 season.

“Every one of those wins is for Coach (Walker),” Fitzgerald said. “I’d much rather be in that locker room. I’d much rather be there with those linebackers than out here, but – those aren’t the cards.”

Fitzgerald broke down momentarily after mentioning the former coach.

The victory also dramatically alters the Cats’ chances of reaching a program-record fourth-straight bowl game. With its fourth win of the season in hand, NU just needs to beat a Rice team that has won only three games and a Minnesota team that has started 2-7 to become bowl eligible.

“As the season’s gone on, we’ve let some games slip away that we shouldn’t,” Colter said. “This game that we just played, I feel like it’s a great statement.”

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