The key for NU was the run defense. Northwestern gives up nearly 190 rush yards per game, and had allowed Stephen Houston of Indiana and Silas Redd of Penn State to rush for over 150 yards in consecutive weeks.
The turnaround could not have been more dramatic.
Rex Burkhead was completely ineffective against the Wildcats defense. He had 22 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown, an average of just 3.1 yards per carry.
"I thought we got off blocks better today," Pat Fitzgerald said. "I thought we were able to fit better at the second level. And when the ball did pop a little bit or it looked like they might have had something, we tackled better that we've tackled all year."
Along with improved tackling, the Wildcats were able to force several crucial turnovers, including a Burkhead fumble inside the five yard line.
"Any turnover in the red zone is critical. It's a game changer," Fitzgerald said.
As has happened numerous times this season, however, there were several situations where the NU defense had its back against the wall. In past games, these were the points in which the defense folded, giving up big plays and allowing opponents to gain complete control of the game.
In a complete reversal, however, the Wildcats defense stepped up to the challenge each time. After a Dan Persa tipped pass was intercepted at the 37-yard line, the defense held Nebraska to a field goal. On 4th-and-2 early in the 3rd quarter, the defense stopped Burkhead for a three-yard loss. And after Northwestern missed a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the defense held Nebraska to a quick three-and-out.
According to defensive lineman Quentin Williams, the attitude this week was the difference.
"We had a great week of practice, lot of passion in practice," Williams said. "The defense and the whole team collectively put our foot down this week. We decided enough is enough, we need to come out here and play a complete game."
The demoralizing five-game losing streak has been replaced by uplifting back to back wins on the road. For the defense, the feeling of satisfaction is palpable.
"It's a great feeling," Williams said. "It's been a long year, and we've been working to put that full game together, and it feels great to get it."
But the season isn't over just yet. With the upset victory, NU is just two wins from bowl eligibility. The Wildcats return to Ryan Field with critical momentum to play three consecutive home games to close out the regular season.
"If we want to make this season special then we've got to make it a November to remember," Fitzgerald said. "We're two steps up the mountain, but all this will go for naught unless we're humble with the way that we go about enjoying this one."