Jordan Westerkamp was probably best known for his hands and his mustache before Saturday’s game against Northwestern. Luckily for Nebraska, it’s the former that came through with the clock at 0:00 and a touchdown for the ages.
Ron Kellogg III’s 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Westerkamp as time expired gave Nebraska an improbable 27-24 win over snake-bitten Northwestern, in one of the most miraculous plays in the 90-year history of Memorial Stadium. Obviously, all of the chatter and what’s remembered most from this game will be the catch from Westerkamp and the perfect throw from Kellogg. The end result may have been ‘lucky’, but Nebraska gave themselves a fighting chance to come through when it mattered most.
The tip from Quincy Enunwa to give Westerkamp an unimpeded, fluttering ball to embrace for the game winner. The extra effort from Ameer Abdullah on 4th and 15 with Nebraska’s season hanging by a thread to scratch out a pivotal 16th yard and a first down. The defense not backing down and holding Northwestern to a field goal instead of a touchdown after it started on the Nebraska 7, with just over two minutes to play. A defense that ignored its doubters, at least for one game, and gave up only 104 yards after halftime and six first downs. Take your pick—it all came together in the most unthinkable of outcomes.
Nebraska opened the game with a very efficient 8 play, 76 yard touchdown drive that took 2:51 off the clock. Five running and three passing plays showed great balance as Tommy Armstrong, in his fourth career start, moved the Huskers down the field and culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run from the redshirt freshman. It was the best drive of the day for the Huskers, and signaled what appeared to be a calamitous outcome for Nebraska as Northwestern would then proceed to gash the Blackshirts at every turn on their first two drives.
A 12-play, 75 yard drive on Northwestern’s ensuing drive ended with Treyvon Green’s 1-yard touchdown run after the Wildcats had marched it right down the heart of Nebraska’s defense. Kain Colter, who’s been such a thorn in Nebraska’s side for the last three years, proved to elusive yet again as the Wildcats would take a 14-7 lead on Green’s 4-yard touchdown run after Nebraska went three-and-out on their next possession. Northwestern started their day with 18 plays for a robust 160 yards. They would end it with their next 50 plays only totaling 166 yards, which at that point in the game would have been preposterous to suggest.
But Nebraska kept at it. The offense struggled and would eventually drive into Northwestern territory before they stalled and had to settle for a 48-yard field goal attempt from Pat Smith. Smith’s kick was long enough, but glanced off the right upright and it was still 14-7 Northwestern. A Kellogg interception 2 ½ minutes later gave Northwestern the ball on the Nebraska 38 and two plays later, the Wildcats took a 21-7 lead on Green’s third touchdown run of the game, a 10-yarder with 11:07 left in the second quarter. For almost the next 40 minutes of game action, the Blackshirts rose up and shutout Northwestern to give an injury depleted offense a chance, which they’d make the most of.
After Northwestern took the 21-7 lead, the Huskers engineered an 11-play, 77 yard drive that took 4:23 off the clock and wrapped up with Armstrong’s three-yard touchdown pass to Enunwa. It would go into halftime at 21-14 Northwestern, but Nebraska’s defense was turning the corner and the offense was learning to lean on Abdullah and the contributions of relative newcomers like Alonzo Moore. While the offense wouldn’t score again on the day, they were able to play field position with Northwestern and hold out for the most brazen of finishes.
Three and out—that’s how Northwestern drives ended four times in the second half (five if you count the drive which ended in Northwestern’s field goal to make it 24-21) to keep Nebraska in the game. The offense would be shut out until the final play of the game, often throwing away good chances as the Wildcats picked off four passes on the afternoon. The lone Husker interception proved to be huge however as Avery Moss picked off Trevor Siemian and raced 25 yards to tie the game at 21 apiece with 7:10 remaining in the third quarter.
While Abdullah would find his wheels and top the 100-yard mark, and the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the second half, the Huskers offense couldn’t break through. But neither could Northwestern’s, which would have come to great surprise to anyone watching the game in the first quarter. Armstrong would throw his costliest of three interceptions on the day on a 2nd and 10 with just over 2 ½ minutes to go as Northwestern’s Tyler Scott stepped in front of a pass intended for Enunwa at the Nebraska 36 and returned it 29 yards to set up Northwestern’s final score.
Credit the Blackshirts, who made two big plays to keep Northwestern out of the end zone. Ciante Evans and David Santos converged on Green to stop him for a loss of 1 on 2nd and Goal, while Randy Gregory dropped Colter for a loss of two on 3rd and Goal after Andrew Green didn’t bite on the roll out, stayed at home, and forced Colter back to the middle of the field for Gregory to clean up. Jeff Budzien’s 21-yard field goal barely, and I mean BARELY, snuck through the uprights and Northwestern led 24-21 with 1:14 remaining. The next nine plays can be described as maddening, frustrating, hopeful, and exhilarating…and that’s probably leaving out quite a few adjectives.
The move to insert Kellogg back into the game on the final drive seemed to be a head scratcher. But immediately, Kellogg fired a 12 yard completion to Abdullah for a first down and then the game’s second-most important play of the game when the pair hooked up for 16 yards on a 4th and 15 to keep the glimmer of hope alive. Abdullah’s stretch for extra yardage after he made a defender miss might be overlooked by many, but its importance will grow with time, as the play gave the Huskers the ball on their own 40. Two completions to Sam Burtch gave Nebraska a first down followed by an incompletion to Enunwa to set up the final, dramatic play.
The images of Matt Davison from 1997 are of course natural to think about when the end of this game unfolded. While Davison’s touchdown catch was more important and helped that Husker team keep its national title hopes alive, this one may have saved a season and rejuvenated a team on the brink of near disaster. A loss to Northwestern would have cast serious doubts on the season, with a 5-3 record and tough games at Michigan and Penn State and home games against Michigan State and Iowa remaining. Yes, this win got Nebraska bowl eligible. By the time it’s all over with, it may have kept even more possible.
Northwestern’s unbelievable bad luck since a 4-0 start is probably unparalleled. To lose the game in this manner has got to be completely devastating and couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team that’s fallen on hard times due to injury, missed chances, and other close calls. Thankfully for Northwestern’s sake, the Wildcats get a bye next week and get a chance to heal up for Michigan on November 16th. It’s also a good thing for Nebraska that they’ll have a chance to ride the wave all the way to Ann Arbor next week.
An up and down day for the offense. Armstrong looked crisp and decisive in running the option early, but Nebraska seemingly went away from it as the game wore on. Abdullah struggled as he had only 12 carries for 40 yards at halftime, but would tack on 87 yards on 12 carries in the final 30 minutes. Although the Huskers couldn’t score any offensive points until the WesterKatch (see what I did there?), they were beginning to find their spots. Armstrong struggled, going 15-of-29 for 173 yards and three interceptions while rushing for 69 yards on 17 carries. With Kenny Bell injured after a brief appearance in the first quarter, Enunwa led the way with 6 catches for 67 yards, Alonzo Moore added 5 for 55, and Westerkamp…well, he had 4 for 104 yards and the most improbable 100-yard receiving day in Husker history.
Northwestern’s offense battled injuries, but Nebraska’s offense looked like a mash unit too. Bell’s injury, coupled with Taylor Martinez and Jamal Turner not playing at all made for a very different Husker offense. Credit to Enunwa, Moore, Westerkamp, and Burtch, Nebraska’s four leading receivers on the day. The line, who had to navigate an injury to Jake Cotton, did give up four sacks on the day and managed just under four yards rushing per carry.
Both offenses bogged down in the second half for the most part, but credit both the Nebraska and Northwestern defenses for playing smart, tackling well, and forcing key turnovers. Other than the UCLA game, this was probably the poorest offensive performance of the season for Nebraska. A far cry from what they’re capable of, but the offense gets a D.
And here’s where it gets weird, at least if you were watching the first quarter of the game and didn’t see the final 45 minutes. Northwestern had 152 yards rushing at halftime, but would only muster 93 in the final two quarters and wound up with a paltry 81 yards passing on the afternoon. Northwestern has been at their best this season when they’ve had Colter at quarterback and been more ground oriented. Early on, that looked like it would be the case but Colter finished with 23 carries for 86 yards rushing and no touchdowns. Green went for 149 yards on 19 carries and three scores, but had only 57 of those yards after halftime and didn’t find the end zone from the second quarter on.
What I saw was a defense that started to win on first and second down. On Northwestern’s three touchdown drives in the first half, the theme was to connect big on first down and either move the sticks or set up a short second and even third down. Northwestern converted their first two third down conversions on the day—they’d then proceed to fail on their next 12 third down attempts and finish the game 2-of-14. For a team that allowed Minnesota to largely walk all over it up front last week, the same cannot be said this week.
The tackling was much better in the second half, as Evans, Gregory, Moss and company led the defense to perhaps their finest half of the year. The Blackshirts faced 34 plays and gave up a mere 104 yards in the second half. That’s improvement and came when it was needed most. Throw out the first quarter, and this grade is an A—we’ll go with a B+.
The Special Teams
Smith was barely wide on his 48-yard field goal attempt, which would look bigger and bigger as the game arrived at its conclusion. Bondi was automatic on his kickoffs, as Northwestern only attempted one kick return. Sam Foltz only averaged 35.9 yards per punt but dropped three of his seven punts inside the 20 yard line with a touchback.
The return games didn’t yield any big plays, with the longest return only gaining 24 yards. They didn’t do anything to hurt the team, but they certainly did nothing to help. Nothing special, but nothing bad either, they’ll get a C-.
What this means in the grand scheme of the season remains to be seen, but if it propels a surge toward a Legends Division title and another appearance in Indianapolis, it would make Westerkamp’s grab the second biggest touchdown catch in Husker history. The Kellogg-to-Abdullah connection on 4th and 15 for 16 yards and a first down will go down in lore too as time wears on if that previous scenario plays out. Regardless, it was an ending for the ages and one that won’t be forgotten or glossed over any time soon.
Michigan State is still the top dog in the Legends Division after they dominated Michigan 29-6 on Saturday. The Spartans are 5-0 in conference and lead the 3-1 Huskers by a game and a half. If Nebraska wins at Michigan next week, the November 16th matchup in Lincoln between the Big Red and Sparty effectively decides the Legends division. Minnesota showed it’s for real after knocking off Indiana 42-39 after the Hoosiers had rattled off 26 straight points to overcome a 35-13 deficit in the third quarter. Iowa ran out of gas against Wisconsin and lost 28-9 to fall to 2-3 in the Big Ten.
It all means the pieces are in place for another memorable run. It obviously doesn’t take all of the heat on Bo Pelini and the staff away, but it certainly cools things off, at least for another week. The tandem of Armstrong and Kellogg likely performed the worst of any of their four wins against Northwestern, but at the very least it showed it gives the team a chance to win. It’s likely that Martinez will return at some point and factor heavily into the final game of the season.
Credit to John Papuchis and the defensive staff for making personnel adjustments and putting the right guys in spots to succeed. Sure, Northwestern was battered and bruised, but Nebraska’s defense took the Wildcats’ best shot and gained confidence as the game continued. An increasingly regressing Michigan offense awaits next, one that Nebraska battered last season in Lincoln.
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And that’s what Nebraska has with four games to go. All of the other stuff that led up to Saturday’s miraculous, Lazarus-esque 27-24 win over Northwestern is forgotten, at least for another day and another week. As for Jordan Westerkamp and Ron Kellogg? My guess is they had a great end to their weekend and will want to be in class come Monday morning.