LINCOLN, Neb.-Northwestern just loves to play overtime games, it seems.
The Wildcats became the first FBS team in history to win three consecutive overtime games when they beat Nebraska 31-24 on Saturday in Lincoln.
They beat Iowa two weeks ago in one overtime, Michigan State in three extra periods last week, and on Saturday knocked off the Huskers in one OT session in a game they trailed 24-17 in the fourth quarter.
It was also the Wildcats' fourth consecutive win overall in what is rapidly becoming a memorable season.
The Wildcats got the ball first in overtime after a failed Hail Mary in the end zone on the last play of regulation. It took them seven plays to go 25 yards for the score, with Clayton Thorson pushing across the plane on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on a quarterback sneak for what would become the game-winner. It was Northwestern’s fifth straight overtime possession that resulted in a score in the three games.
Nebraska couldn’t answer on its possession, losing two yards on four plays. Samdup Miller recorded a 10-yard sack of Tanner Lee to put the Huskers in a hole, and Lee’s pass to JD Spielman was broken up by Kyle Queiro on fourth-and-12 from the 27 to touch off a wild celebration on the NU sideline.
Justin Jackson ran for 154 yards and a touchdown and Thorson threw for 243 yards with two interceptions to lead the Wildcats.
Lee threw for 225 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions for the Huskers.
Here are our six points on a win that raised Northwestern’s record to 6-3 (4-2 Big Ten):
Northwestern came up with a big pick and scoring drive when it had to: Northwestern’s defense was on its heels, trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter and needed a stop. It got more than that. Godwin Igwebuike’s interception of a Lee pass at the NU 16 thwarted a Nebraska drive that could have put the game out of reach for the Wildcats. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the key on that play was pressure by Joe Gaziano, who leveled Lee as he released the ball. Then, the offense, which began the second half with a pick-6 and three punts and converted just 1 of 11 third downs in the game, suddenly found its groove. They went 84 yards in 13 plays to tie the game at 24 on a 7-yard Thorson run with 5:03 left.
Northwestern resurrected its running game: The Wildcats got its ground attack going for the first time in three weeks. NU ran for 232 yards in the game, the most they’ve had since the Maryland game on Oct. 14. Jackson ran for 154 yards on 31 carries, including a brilliant 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter with a cutback that put a Nebraska tackler on a missing persons report and gave Jackson the NU record for career touchdowns with 39. Jeremy Larkin added 69 yards rushing and scored on a 24-yard run in the second that with a cutback of his own that looked like a pretty good impression of Jackson. Northwestern’s zone blocking scheme was creating seams in the Nebraska defense that the Wildcats backs exploited all day. Jackson and Fitzgerald credited the play of the offensive line, which continues to improve after struggling badly to start the year. Northwestern is now 20-4 when Jackson runs for 100 yards.
Big plays abounded on both sides in the first half: We were expecting another low-scoring contest like the last two for the Wildcats, but big offensive plays by both teams were responsible for a 17-14 NU lead at halftime. Northwestern and Nebraska each had three plays of more than 20 yards in the first half. The Wildcats had the 24-yard run by Larkin and 28- and 42-yard catches by Macan Wilson, the second of which was a spectacular leaping grab over a defender on the sideline. Nebraska got a 40-yard run on a jet sweep by Spielman and touchdown passes from Lee to Jack Stoll and Bryan Reimers for 32 and 22 yards, respectively. And that doesn’t even count both teams’ interceptions.
Five interceptions had a big impact on the game: Queiro picked off two Lee passes in the first half and both set Northwestern up in Nebraska territory. But neither resulted in scores; it wasn’t until Igwebuike’s big fourth-quarter pick that NU was able to score some points off of a turnover. Thorson, on the other hand, threw two interceptions that both became Nebraska touchdowns. The first, an interception to Joshual Kalu at the Nebraska 7-yard line on a pass that shouldn’t have been thrown, sparked a 10-play, 61-yard touchdown drive. The second was much quicker: Marcus Newby picked off a Thorson pass that sailed over Bennett Skorownek’s head and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown on NU’s first possession of the second half. That pick-six gave Nebraska a 21-17 lead and changed the momentum of the game. The Wildcats didn’t get it back until midway through the fourth quarter.
Thorson had an off day but came through when it mattered most: After two straight turnover-less outings, Thorson regressed against Nebraska – until the fourth quarter and overtime. His two interceptions on errant throws led to Nebraska touchdowns. In addition, the quarterback overthrew open receivers several times and consistently threw the long out passes to the opposite sideline too far for the NU receiver. Unlike earlier in the season, Thorson wasn’t harassed in the pocket very often against the Huskers, who failed to record a sack. For the game, he completed 19 of 35 passes after starting the game 4 for 5. But in the fourth quarter and in overtime, Thorson flipped a switch and made just enough plays to become NU’s all-time winningest quarterback with his 23rd career victory. He was 6 for 12 for 63 yards in the fourth quarter and scored the tying touchdown on the ground. He then added the sneak to win it in overtime on fourth down after his third-down attempt was thwarted.
Looking ahead: Northwestern’s third win in four tries at Memorial Stadium gave the Wildcats six wins and means that they are bowl-eligible for the third straight year. With four wins in a row, the Wildcats face a very real possibility of winning out. Their remaining three games are against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, and they will be favored in all three. If they manage to close the season with seven straight wins, the Wildcats will be runners up in the West and wind up in a pretty good bowl game. That outcome looked like a longshot at best when Northwestern was saddled with a 2-3 record in early October.