Football: Last-minute drive, overtime field goal give Northwestern stunning 34-31 victory over Nebraska


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Flynn Nagel sprints into the end zone. The senior receiver had 220 receiving yards in Northwestern’s stirring victory over Nebraska.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Flynn Nagel turned to his teammates on the Northwestern sidelines, not far from the scoreboard that showed Nebraska leading 31-24 with two minutes to play. The senior receiver had a message for all of them.

“He was just saying, ‘We’re going to win this game. We’re going to win this game. You’ve got to believe it,’’ senior quarterback Clayton Thorson relayed.

Nagel turned out to be right.

Over the next half-hour, a remarkable 99-yard touchdown drive to tie the game with 12 seconds to go, an interception from sophomore safety J.R. Pace on the Cornhuskers’ overtime possession and the second career field goal by backup kicker Drew Luckenbaugh lifted the Wildcats to an improbable 34-31 overtime win on Homecoming.

“That was a feeling that I don’t think I’ve ever had playing football, it just felt different,” Nagel said after it was all said and done, the grin on his face stretching almost to Lake Michigan. “The love for everybody beside me … was just on a different level this game, and the trust with Clayton. I was just ecstatic out there.”

Nagel, a senior receiver, tied or set new career highs across the board with 12 receptions for 220 yards — the most by any Big Ten receiver since 2013 — and two touchdowns, and Thorson did the same with 41 completions for 455 yards, as NU (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) dealt Nebraska (0-6, 0-4) a most painful loss at Ryan Field on Saturday.

The Cornhuskers, trailing 14-13 at halftime, surged in the second half to take a two-score lead and had all but put the game to bed after backing the Cats into a fourth-and-10 deep in their own territory with barely five minutes left and a 10-point deficit. But Thorson kept NU alive with a completion, and the hosts drove close enough for Luckenbaugh to drill a 31-yard field goal, the first of his career, to cut into the deficit with 2:27 left.

The Cats’ defense, gorged all day long until that point by Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo (159 yards, two touchdowns), then came up with three crucial stops to get the offense one more chance.

“We just realized the game was on the line, and for us to win the game, we had to do what we can and stop the offense,” Pace said. “It was a heightened sense of urgency — we realized the game was on us.”

The offense then delivered.

Thorson hit Nagel on three straight plays to move in to Cornhusker territory, connected with junior receiver Ben Skowronek to move down to the 5-yard line and then found freshman JJ Jefferson diving into the end zone to send the purple portion of the sold-out crowd of 47,330 into delirium.

“If you go back and look at the last few years, our two-minute offense has been really good,” Thorson said. “We had the ball on our own half-yard line really, and we were just thinking we’ve got to get the ball out, get a little breathing room, and then we’ll just go into our normal stuff. … Our receivers were getting open the whole day and our O-line was doing a great job.”

Once overtime started, NU — now 4-0 in games tied after 60 minutes over the past two seasons, including one last autumn in Lincoln — seemed destined for another wild victory, and this time, it was destiny that delivered.

“We’re pretty salty in overtime,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We have great confidence and belief in that time. There’s a lot of seniors who have been through a lot of games when we went on that run last year.”

Not everything was rosy for the Cats, beyond the fact it took an against-all-odds rally to beat a winless team at home. The running game, for example, again struggled mightily: NU averaged 2.1 yards per rush attempt and finished below 40 total rushing yards for the third straight game, plus leading runner John Moten departed mid-game with an injury.

Still, the Cats successfully rode their clicking aerial attack to exhaustion — Thorson attempted 64 passes — to slightly out-gain the Cornhuskers, 487 yards to 482, and get back to .500 on the season entering a should-win matchup at lowly Rutgers next weekend.

“That’s the most fun football game I’ve ever been a part of,” Nagel said. “Just trusting all these guys around me is what it comes down to.”

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