Fantastic finishes make Wildcats, Huskers improbable rivals
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska fans looked forward to meaningful and exciting games against the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa when the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011.
Northwestern, it turns out, is the team that has treated them to the most compelling football.
The last two meetings have gone to overtime. There was third-string walk-on quarterback Ron Kellogg’s Hail Mary pass to Jordan Westerkamp to give Nebraska the win in 2013. The teams’ first game as conference mates saw a 3-5 Northwestern team upset ninth-ranked Nebraska in Lincoln.
The Wildcats and Huskers have split eight games, with a total of 21 points separating the two (Nebraska 226-205). They meet again Saturday in Lincoln.
“I’m a student of what’s happened around here and have seen all the close games that have happened between Northwestern and Nebraska,” Huskers coach Scott Frost said Monday. “They’re such a well-coached team year in and year out. They’re disciplined, they’re smart, they’re not going to beat themselves. And those types of teams end up in a lot of close games. If we’re in one, we need our guys to respond well.”
Nebraska (3-2, 1-1) will be looking to bounce back from a 48-7 home loss to fourth-ranked Ohio State. Northwestern (1-3, 0-2) has lost two straight and is on the road for the second straight week after losing 24-15 at Wisconsin.
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said a big part of his childhood was watching Nebraska play on television, often against its chief rival Oklahoma.
“Did I think that Northwestern and Nebraska would ever become a rivalry? As a kid, I probably would have told you no,” Fitzgerald said.
The Huskers are seven-point favorites this week. Only two of the previous eight games have been decided by more than a touchdown.
“No matter what the odds say, we have to put our best foot forward,” Nebraska cornerback DiCaprio Bootle said. “This is a Northwestern team that always has a lot of fight in them. We have to go in there with that mindset knowing the previous games have been close between us and this team and they’re not going to come in here and just lay down.”
Nebraska found that out the hard way last year in Evanston, Illinois. The Huskers blew a 10-point lead in the final 6 minutes and lost 34-31 in overtime for their program-record 10th straight loss.
Is the desire for payback even stronger because of the way last year’s game unfolded?
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it payback, but I’m definitely aware of what occurred,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “I think that was last year’s teams’ problem. Northwestern is a good football team. They’re disciplined just like they were last year, and we’re looking forward for another opportunity to get back on the field this week.”
The first three meetings in Lincoln from 2011-15 were decided by a total of eight points, and the 2017 game went to overtime before the Wildcats won 31-24.
No game was more exciting than the one in 2013.
Northwestern took a three-point lead with 1:20 left in the fourth quarter and Nebraska had the ball at its 17 with no timeouts. Ameer Abdullah caught a short pass and stretched to convert a fourth-and-15. Then, with time running out, Kellogg let fly a ball that traveled 53 yards into the end zone, where it was tipped and landed in Westerkamp’s hands.
That’s the only time Northwestern has lost a Big Ten game at Memorial Stadium. But, as Northwestern senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano said, past performance isn’t an indicator of future results.
While 3-1 is a great record in Lincoln, Gaziano said, “I’m 1-0 in that stadium. I’ve only played there once. Nebraska is a great team, and their head coach definitely has brought some juice to that stadium. So we’re excited for the mentality of going in and being the underdog and playing like it’s us against the world. We’ve got 74 guys traveling and we’re against 90-plus-thousand. It’s a fun atmosphere. Excited for the opportunity.”