The Northwestern Wildcats seemed down and out Saturday against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Faced with the daunting task of a 99-yard touchdown drive with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it seemed the Wildcats were going to fall short yet again at home.
Against all odds, quarterback Clayton Thorson led his team on that march. He kept his offense on schedule and remained calm in one of the most improbable drives of his career. He found J.J. Jefferson for the touchdown and the extra point tied it up.
“That’s just absolutely spectacular,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You know, 99-and-a-half yard drive with no timeouts to get us into overtime, you know, I think that was a huge huge huge huge confidence builder for our offense.”
But to those who thought the story of this game couldn’t get better, Drew Luckenbaugh stepped in.
The Wildcats’ defense did its part in overtime and the offense moved the ball into field goal range. The sophomore kicker from Spring Grove, Pennsylvania had a chance to leave his name in the Northwestern history books. One swing of the leg sent the ball sailing 37 yards in the air and through the uprights to secure the Cats’ third Big Ten victory of the season.
It was also his first collegiate start at placekicker.
“It still hasn’t really hit,” he said afterward.
Charlie Kuhbander, NU’s regular placekicker, was ruled out for this week’s homecoming game, meaning it was Luckenbaugh’s time to step up. Despite missing a field goal in the third quarter, he delivered when it mattered most.
“I was just, yeah, a little bit excited to go out there for the first one. But, you know, as I was growing up we had a saying, ‘Fix it and forget it.’ So, you know, I realized what I did and then just moved on and fixed it for the next one.”
Nebraska jumped out to a touchdown lead on their opening possession of the game, but the scoring came to a halt as the two teams sized each other up. Northwestern broke through with 7:41 left in the second quarter as Thorson found Flynn Nagel in the end zone to knot it at seven apiece. The Cats later scored on a strip sack of Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez to take the lead. The half ended with a Nebraska touchdown but a missed extra point kept the momentum with the Wildcats.
We’ve seen that story, however, and it has ended with Northwestern snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Such seemed to be the case on Saturday, as the Cornhuskers went ahead by 14 to start the fourth quarter. This time, however, the script had changed.
“We realized that was the issue the first few weeks,” Thorson said of their early second-half woes. “And so we just addressed that, and address that in practice and move on. But the guys are playing real resilient right now.”
Thorson, looking for the end zone, threw a pick at the Nebraska three to start the half, and a 97-yard touchdown drive from the
Huskers ensued. NU got an interception on Nebraska’s next drive but missed the field goal. The Huskers responded with a touchdown and suddenly they had a 28-14 lead to begin the fourth. That “Here we go again” feeling began to creep in.
But as Thorson said, the Cats remained resilient. Thorson, under pressure, found Nagel, who made a contested catch and broke free for a 61-yard touchdown to make it a one-possession game with 12:31 left in the fourth. A Nebraska field goal with 5:41 remaining, however, put Nebraska back up by 10.
Of course, it wasn’t enough, as the cats scored 10 unanswered and won in overtime.
“Great team win. We found a way to get it done. Obviously, we put ourselves, I think, in a hole to start it,” Fitzgerald said. “To have the guys be resilient and find a way to make some just huge plays down the stretch in all three phases.”
The story could not have been written without the efforts of Thorson and Nagel, though. Thorson threw for 455 yards and three touchdowns, while Nagel had 12 receptions for 220 yards and two touchdowns. The duo linked up three times for 52 yards on the final drive.
“He was playing out of his mind,” Thorson said of Nagel. “On that last drive there, when he ran kind of a little wheel route, he turned to me and said, ‘Throw me the ball. This is why I’m here.'”
“They came up with a saying, Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier, around here. Right now it’s Clayton Thorson the thrower,” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats travel to New Jersey to face the lowly Rutgers Scarlett Knights next week before a showdown with the Wisconsin Badgers at Ryan Field on October 27th.
“The [students] that, you know, are thinking about coming out in a couple weeks, we’re going to need them. And I hope they come out and I hope they enjoy it.”
Twitter: @crbevins11 @radiomogul
Hear audio from Pat Fitzgerald, Clayton Thorson and Drew Luckenbaugh: