“It had a Super Bowl-feel”: Remembering Northwestern’s 28-25 victory over No. 9 Nebraska 10 years ago
September 30, 2021
Jeff Budzien was part of the team that won Northwestern’s first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. He was the kicker for the squad that faced No. 4 Ohio State, a matchup that drew ESPN’s College Gameday to Evanston.
But the game he’s going to “tell (his) kids about” came on Nov. 5, 2011 when NU entered Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1974 to face No. 9 Nebraska.
“We went into Lincoln and nobody gave us a snowball’s chance in hell to win that game,” Budzien said.
Big plays at the right times, a 207-yard rushing attack and controlling the possession battle helped the Cats upset the Cornhuskers 28-25 for their second top-10 win in three years.
Outdueling a Nebraska team in its first season in the Big Ten Conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald earned his 38th win, passing predecessor Randy Walker and moving to second in all-time coaching wins at NU.
This weekend, the Cats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) return to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten). As NU comes off two Big Ten West championships in three seasons and Nebraska looks to avoid its fifth-straight losing season in conference play, the 2011 game still reverberates today.
“10 years later, bowl eligibility is expected,” running back Jacob Schmidt said. “Back in 2011, that was still the goal. The goal was to get to a bowl. The goal was to win our division, win the Big Ten. Coach Fitz was trying to build something in the first five years of his tenure, and we did not want to put a pause to that.”
Growing up in the 1990s, offensive lineman Ben Burkett knew the reputation of Cornhuskers football. Three national championships and 13 conference titles under coach Tom Osborne. A home sell-out streak dating back to 1962.
Despite Nebraska’s history, Burkett and the Cats prepared for their matchup just like any game. But the contest was an important one.
After starting the season 2-0, NU came into Lincoln 3-5. The threat of a sixth loss created urgency, as it would force the Cats to win out for bowl eligibility.
Meanwhile, the 7-1 Cornhuskers were riding a three-game win streak, including a recent victory over then-No. 9 Michigan State. It was clear the Cats were the underdogs, Burkett said.
As NU prepared to take the field against the Cornhuskers, it bore witness to the spectacle of Memorial Stadium: 85,458 fans, many of whom were clad in scarlet and cream.
“We’re looking at their jumbotron and they’ve got one of the coolest walk-out videos of all time,” Budzien said. “The crowd is ballistic and I’m thinking, ‘We need a prayer here.’”
After Nebraska earned just 18 yards on its opening drive, the Cats took the field against one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defensive units. Nebraska rostered linebacker Will Compton, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonso Dennard, the latter pair of whom earned All-American and Big Ten recognition for their performance in the 2011 season.
It was Compton who recovered quarterback Kain Colter’s fumble to give the ball back to the Cornhuskers, who punted once again after a three-and-out. The Cats eventually scored the game’s first touchdown, as Schmidt crossed the goal line to cap off a 13-play, 80-yard drive.
Nebraska then drove 73 yards before running back Rex Burhead fumbled deep in the NU’s red zone. The ball was recovered by defensive lineman Tyler Scott, stopping the Cornhuskers’ momentum in its tracks.
Even though NU recovered another Nebraska fumble, the Cats couldn’t capitalize at the end of the first half. Quarterback Dan Persa threw an interception to David that led to a Nebraska field goal and then left the game after suffering a shoulder injury late in the second quarter.
Up 7-3 heading into the third quarter, it would be Colter and quarterback Trevor Siemian guiding the Cats under center.
“It doesn’t matter who is back there, whether it was Trevor, Dan or Kane, because they were all either gonna make great throws or they were gonna make things happen with their feet,” offensive lineman Brian Mulroe said.
As Colter split reps with Persa early in the season, Schmidt knew NU needed to find a way to get the ball into the sophomore’s hands. When Persa — who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury the year before — went down, the opportunity for Colter arrived.
After Siemian found Ebert for a 32 yard gain into Nebraska territory, Colter connected with superback Drake Dunsmore for 23 yards before making what Schmidt called one of the most athletic plays he has ever witnessed.
“(He) jumps off the wrong leg, switches the ball in mid-air and tips the pylon with the ball.”
Colter’s three-yard scramble gave the Cats a 14-3 lead. When Nebraska missed a fourth-down conversion near midfield, the Cats earned an opportunity for a definitive lead against one of college football’s top programs. But a costly interception in the end zone by Siemian led to Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez throwing his first touchdown pass, cutting NU’s lead to four.
Then, Budzien’s field goal sailed wide of the uprights.
“I had a 45-yarder with the wind,” Budzien said. “I hit it as good as I could hit it. For about 43 yards, it’s right down the middle, and then it just jets left. And I missed and I was crushed.”
Another punt from Nebraska, who finished the game with four to the Cats’ two, gave NU another chance to maintain its lead. This time, the Cats seized the momentum.
Since the second quarter, Ebert noticed the opposing safety rolling down when NU lined up with two players standing next to Colter in the shotgun, one receiver to his left and two receivers to his right. It left the entire left side of the field wide open.
So when coverage shifted at the snap, Ebert ran straight before racing left on a post route. As he burned Cornhuskers cornerback Ciante Evans, Dennard was too late to pick up the play. Nothing stood between Ebert and what would become a 81-yard touchdown.
“The only thing that was gonna mess me up on my stride was gonna be the throw and just re-adjusting,” Ebert, who finished with six catches for 147 yards, said. “Luckily, I had a fantastic throw. It hit me in stride and then, I just had green grass.”
Even though Martinez led Nebraska on back-to-back touchdown drives, a 66-yard Cats drive between the scores ate seven minutes and 21 seconds off the clock. NU ran 13 times in a row — highlighted by 14-and-11-yard bursts by Schmidt and a one-yard touchdown sneak by Colter — to take a 28-18 lead with less than 90 seconds remaining.
The win was officially sealed when wide receiver Charles Brown recovered the Cornhuskers’ onside kick attempt. Behind 172 total yards and three touchdowns from Colter, two forced turnovers and 20 minutes and 23 seconds of possession time, the Cats had pulled off the upset.
NU’s players soon found their fans, and families, after the win and broke into a rendition of “Go U, Northwestern.” Budzien called it the best moment of singing the fight song in his career.
“Singing the fight song, there’s nothing better,” Schmidt, today NU’s Director of Football Operations, said. “But (it’s) something a little bit sweeter when it’s just you and your 70 guys and your coaches on the road against 90,000 people.”
When Budzien arrived back home, he was watching college football when highlights of the Cats game came on the screen. He looked over at his roommates, all members of the team, as they had a collective thought.
“Did that just happen?”
NU’s win in Lincoln was critical: it finished the regular season 6-6. Earning a berth to the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the Cats fell to Texas A&M 33-23. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers won just two more games and lost by 17 points to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
The two Big Ten West foes have played nine times since that November day, with Nebraska winning five of the matchups. But while the Cornhuskers have rotated through four coaches since 2011, Fitzgerald has stayed with the team, growing the Cats into one of the Big Ten’s up-and-coming powers.
NU has recently suffered tough losses in Lincoln — it fell on a Hail Mary as time expired in 2013 and in 2019, lost on a last-second field goal. As the Cats return to Nebraska this weekend, they are no longer playing a top-10 program. However, the magic of NU’s triumph in Lincoln 10 years ago still remains.
“It was one of those things when you take your pads off in the locker room, it’s like, ‘Man, this is special,’” Budzien, who is a sideline reporter for some Cats games for WGN Radio 720, said. “This isn’t like we just beat Rice on the road or we beat Indiana on the road. It had a Super Bowl-feel.”
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