Football: Miracle Hail Mary pass dooms Wildcats to devastating defeat

Junior safety Jimmy Hall walks off the field after Saturday's game against Nebraska. Northwestern lost on a 49-yard touchdown pass as time expired.

Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior safety Jimmy Hall walks off the field after Saturday's game against Nebraska. Northwestern lost on a 49-yard touchdown pass as time expired.

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Northwestern raised the bar on soul-smashing losses Saturday.

The Wildcats lost 27-24 to Nebraska on a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown with no time on the clock. The pass deflected off a collection of receivers and defenders at the goal line. The ball landed in the hands of Cornhusker wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, who was stationed in the end zone behind the scrum.

“A tough way to lose,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I feel for our guys. They fought and scratched and clawed. … They got one taken away from them.”

An interception late in the fourth quarter by defensive end Tyler Scott set up a go-ahead field goal and positioned the Cats to win, but the Cornhuskers responded with a miracle drive that included a conversion on a fourth-and-15.

The loss was the Cats’ fifth consecutive defeat and the latest in a multi-year string of devastating endings.

After three weeks of offensive ineptitude, NU flashed an effective attack early, scoring three times in 19 minutes to start the game.

Junior running back Treyvon Green ran for 92 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half, and senior quarterback Kain Colter added 50 rushing yards of his own before the break. Colter highlighted NU’s first touchdown drive with a dazzling nine-yard run on which he dodged and juked past several defenders for a first down.

“All the credit goes to the offensive line,” Green said. “Me and Kain are the ones running the ball, but they’re the ones giving us the holes and giving us the seams.”

NU led 21-14 at halftime, before Nebraska defensive end Avery Moss leapt from the line to intercept a pass from junior quarterback Trevor Siemian. With only open field ahead, Moss returned the pick 25 yards for a game-tying touchdown.

After the early scores, the Cats’ offense reverted to the impotence that has debilitated the team throughout much of its five-game losing streak. NU punted 11 times on the day, each after the first quarter, and gained only 104 total yards in the second half.

“Nebraska made adjustments,” Green said. “Give the credit to them. They obviously came out with different things and switched it up to stop our run.”

NU stayed alive due to its ability to force turnovers, which defined the defense early in the season but had disappeared lately. On Saturday, the Cats intercepted four passes, including Scott’s clutch pick with less than three minutes to play.

“That was our goal these last couple of weeks, getting the ball back and letting our offense have it,” Scott said. “It was good that we got that mentality back and got some turnovers.”

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong and tailback Ameer Abdullah combined for nearly 200 yards on the ground, as Nebraska outgained NU 472-­326. Eventually, quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the Cornhuskers’ best healthy passing threat, led Nebraska to its final drive and the most improbable of victories.

NU suffered plenty of insult with the traumatic loss and a heavy dose of injury. At least six Cats players left the field, including two key cogs whose issues appeared especially severe.

Redshirt freshman running back Stephen Buckley, coming off the best game of his career last week at Iowa, was carted off in the first half with a left-knee injury. Minutes later, sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose went down with an apparent head injury. Neither Buckley nor VanHoose returned.

In the end, a stop on the game’s final play would have meant NU victory. Instead, the enduring image is the Cornhuskers’ bench emptying to celebrate in the end zone as Cats defenders dumped heads in hands and collapsed to the ground.

After the game, Green spoke about the devastating quiet in the locker room and his reaction to the fateful play.

“There really are no words to describe it,” he said.

Twitter: @AlexPutt02