The Wildcats were able to hold a fourth-quarter lead, paving the way to a much-needed victory and a wild postgame celebration.
"Obviously a great program win for us to come on the road and probably put together our most complete game of the year," NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the win.
Northwestern's defense delivered by far their best performance of the season, making timely stops and forcing key turnovers. They held Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead in check with just 3.1 yards per carry during the game.
This season, the NU defense has had issues with blown coverages, miscommunication, and fourth-quarter collapses. On Saturday, they came together and helped secure a victory.
"It feels great," said NU defensive end Quentin Williams. "It's been a long year. We've been working to put that full game together and it feels good to get it."
With the Wildcats holding a 7-0 edge, Nebraska was inside the Northwestern five yard-line, and looking to tie the score. NU linebacker David Nwabuisi forced a key turnover as he stripped Burkhead, and Tyler Scott recovered the loose football.
Pat Fitzgerald called that play a "game-changer." Hard to argue.
With momentum on their side, the Wildcats continued to push ahead. The defense delivered crucial stops, and the offense did not let up.
NU opened the second half with a 59-yard touchdown drive, capped off by Kain Colter's first touchdown run of the game. The Wildcats owned a 14-3 lead over Nebraska.
Late in the third quarter, Northwestern was in the red zone and looking to add to their lead. With momentum in their corner, the Wildcats nearly unraveled.
Trevor Siemian's deflected pass was intercepted by Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy, who returned the football all the way to midfield. The Huskers would find the endzone shortly after, as Taylor Martinez connected with Tim Marlowe for a 15-yard touchdown.
The sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd was getting loud, and the Huskers were looking for a big stop. The Wildcats took control.
Kain Colter connected with a wide-open Jeremy Ebert, who sped past the Nebraska secondary for an 81-yard touchdown.
"Kain saw the safety roll down, I had man-to-man coverage," said Ebert. "We got a post (route), Kain threw a great ball, and I was lucky enough to outrun them."
Martinez and Nebraska continued to battle back. On their next series, the Huskers would march down the field for a touchdown. After a Ben Cotton touchdown catch was overruled, Rex Burkhead would score from one yard out. A two-point conversion brought Nebraska within three points of the lead.
The Wildcats have seen three leads slip away in 2011, and it appeared that it was a possibility again. Still gripping to an advantage, Northwestern's offense closed out the game during the final nine minutes of the half. Kain Colter led a 13-play, 66-yard touchdown drive—capped off by a Colter touchdown run—which took seven minutes and 20 second off the clock. NU owned a 10-point lead with just 1:28 remaining in regulation.
A Kenny Bell touchdown catch would be too little, too late for Nebraska. Jordan Mabin recovered the ensuing onside kick and Kain Colter ended the game with a knee in ‘victory formation.'
"They out-played us, they out-coached us, what are you going to say," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini after the game. "They won the football game. They deserve it. I give Northwestern a lot of credit."
The win moved Pat Fitzgerald past Randy Walker for second on Northwestern's all-time wins list with 38 career wins. It was also Fitzgerald's second career win over an opponent ranked in the Top-10—the win over Iowa in 2009 being the first.
Just last week, Nebraska knocked off Michigan State, and was getting ready to face Big Ten-leading Penn State. Taylor Martinez admitted his Cornhuskers were focused on the Nittany Lions instead of Northwestern.
"We didn't come out to play," he said. "Maybe we overlooked Northwestern for Penn State. Other than that, I don't know what to say about the game."
For Northwestern—now 4-5 on the season—a fourth consecutive bowl berth appears attainable. They now face three-straight home games, and a win over Rice (3-6) and Minnesota (2-7) clinches a bowl appearance.
The Wildcats are focused on their goal, and are using their mantra as motivation. Their next challenge comes on Saturday against the Rice Owls.
"If we want to make this season special, we've got to make this a November to remember," Fitzgerald said. "We're two steps up the mountain. All this will go for not unless we're humbled with the way we go about enjoying this win."
• Pat Fitzgerald was emotional when reflecting on his passing Randy Walker on the NU all-time wins list. Every one of those wins is for Coach. I would much rather be in that locker room right now. I'd much rather be there with those linebackers than here. But … those aren't the cards that were dealt."
• Northwestern senior quarterback Dan Persa left the game with an injured left shoulder. He stayed on the sidelines in uniform during the game. Also, freshman superback Jack Konopka suffered a leg injury, and was using crutches on the sidelines. We may receive an update on Monday.
• The win is the 34th for the Northwestern senior class, which matches the school record for most in a five-year class.
• Redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell led all tackles with 13 on the game, which matches his career high.
• Jeremy Ebert finished with a career-high 148 receiving yards. His 81-yard touchdown catch was the second longest passing play in Northwestern history.