Northwestern earns bowl eligibility with wild win against Nebraska


Bobby Pillote/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson flips a short pass during Northwestern’s 30-28 win over Nebraska. Thorson completed only 13/28 passes but threw a key touchdown pass to Dan Vitale in the fourth quarter.

Claire Hansen, Reporter


LINCOLN, Nebraska — In a game full of serious mishaps and big plays, Northwestern (6-2, 2-2- Big Ten) executed in all three phases and beat conference rival Nebraska (3-5, 1-3) Saturday.

The 30-28 victory, played in Lincoln, Nebraska, in front of a crowd of almost 90,000, comes on the heels of two consecutive blowout losses for the Wildcats. The win also grants NU bowl eligibility.

“Just really proud of the resilience,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t necessarily play great at all early, but we stuck together and found a way to make some plays there in the first half and make it a game. Then in the second half we made big pays offensively.”

Consistent defense balanced out a nonexistent early passing game until the offense found its footing after halftime.

Despite a handful of gaffes and a safety in the first half, NU put points on the board thanks to a pair of big runs by redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson and a timely 72-yard pick six by senior cornerback Nick VanHoose.

In the second half, two fourth-quarter drives by NU and a well-defended two-point attempt proved to be just enough for the win.

Though Thorson recorded just 16 yards through the air in the first half, he rushed for 119 yards including two huge carries.

Trailing by 3 in the first quarter, Thorson found a hole through the Nebraska defense and completed a 68-yard run, setting himself up for a 1-yard touchdown run on the next play.

Thorson’s second display of athleticism came at the end of the half as he faked out a Nebraska linebacker to complete a 49-yard run into the red zone. The touchdown opportunity was squandered, however, when senior receiver Christian Jones dropped a pass in the end zone, forcing the Cats to kick a field goal.

After halftime, the offense found the rhythm it lacked in the first two quarters. NU strung together a trio of steady drives in the second half, resulting in two field goals and a touchdown.

“I was seeing a little better in the second half, and I wasn’t rushing things, and I think that’s what happened,” Thorson said. “It’s amazing, when you start listening to coaching and just playing.”

Two big drives in the fourth quarter, tallying 92 and 31 yards, respectively, took NU from trailing by 2 to leading by 8, an edge that proved crucial in the final minutes of play.

After a late touchdown pulled the Cornhuskers within 2, the NU defense foiled Nebraska’s game-tying 2-point conversion attempt with just over four minutes left in the game.

Pressure on the Nebraska offense forced a throw into the right corner of the end zone, which sophomore cornerback Marcus McShepard batted down. It was a play the Cats ran through in practice, VanHoose said.

The 2-point conversion was the finale to a strong defensive performance by the Cats, led by VanHoose and senior defensive end Dean Lowry.

With the time of possession severely skewed in Nebraska’s favor, the defense found itself on the field for over 10 minutes in each of the first three quarters.

“When your offense goes out there and goes 3-0 most of the time, only burning 30, 40 seconds off the clock, we are out there a lot,” VanHoose said. “It can get pretty tiring, but you just got to persevere.”

Lowry set the NU record for tackles for loss with 6 (for a loss of 29 yards), sixth most in a game in Big Ten history.

Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker also had a standout performance, leading the team with 13 tackles.

The defense was particularly effective in containing Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr, limiting him to a 50 percent completion rate and one touchdown on 291 yards.

“(Armstrong’s) ability to keep plays alive and make explosive play with his arm is deadly,” Fitzgerald said. “For the most part we were able to keep that to a minimum.”

The win came with mistakes and sloppy play, however, including a 15-yard penalty for sideline interference, a safety, short punts and a plethora of dropped passes and missed opportunities.

“It’s really exciting to be able to be bowl eligible,” VanHoose said. “It’s great to hit that mark, but six obviously isn’t enough. We want more.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated the number of points Northwestern was leading by during the fourth quarter. NU was leading by 8 points. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @clairechansen