The Wildcats scored 10 points in the final quarter and ran out the clock with three first downs to end a drive that ate the final 4:18 of play after Nebraska failed on a two-point conversion try.
Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson led Northwestern on two scoring drives in the final period. Thorson threw for 177 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 126 and a score as Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) won for second time in three visits to Lincoln as a Big Ten foe of the Huskers.
Nebraska dropped to 3-5 (1-3 in Big Ten), again failing to make plays on defense late. Its five defeats have come by a total of 13 points.
The Huskers went ahead for the first time with a 75-yard drive that ate more than six minutes of clock to start the second half. The lead changed again on field goals of 18 yards by Northwestern’s Jack Mitchell and 48 by Drew Brown of Nebraska on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats then used a 77-yard drive, capped by Thorson’s 37-yard strike to Dan Vitale to go up 27-22. Mitchell’s 27-yard field goal with 7:27 to play extended the lead to eight.
Nebraska answered with a quick score, converting a fourth-and-6 on a 37-yard throw by Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Brandon Reilly. But the quarterback’s hard throw over the middle to Stanley Morgan bounced off the hands of the freshman receiver on the two-point conversion to leave the Wildcats in front by two points.
Northwestern led 14-12 at the half, getting nearly all of its offense on Thorson runs of 68 and 49 yards. Cornerback Nick VanHoose returned an interception 72 yards for a score.
What the win means for Northwestern: A much-needed boost after deflating losses to Michigan and Iowa. Northwestern did just enough offensively, getting big runs from Thorson in the first half and an improved passing attack after a slow start. At 6-2, Northwestern is looking at a bye week, followed by winnable home games. A nine-win regular season looks realistic after two straight years at 5-7.
What the loss means for Nebraska: The postseason dream is dying for the Huskers, who needed a victory Saturday to get back to .500 for the first time since Sept. 19. Encouraging signs from a big win at Minnesota were erased as Northwestern handed the Huskers a fifth loss in late-game fashion. The Huskers must now pull an upset over Michigan State or Iowa and win at Purdue and Rutgers to avoid missing a bowl for the third time since 1968.
How the game was won: Northwestern won on its ability to make clutch plays in fourth quarter. None were bigger than its third-and-3 conversion as Thorson dumped a short pass to Justin Jackson with 3:27 to play for a 28-yard gain. The Wildcats also picked up 15 yards on a third-and-10 Thorson pass to Austin Carr and 9 as Thorson hit Solomon Vault on third-and-5 during their 77-yard drive to go ahead for good in the fourth quarter.
Uh, what?: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald wanted a better explanation than he received when the Wildcats were penalized for sideline interference after a third-and-11 rush by Armstrong for 4 yards to the Northwestern 37 on the opening drive of the third quarter. Nebraska pulled its punt team from the field after the flag was thrown. Northwestern was issued a sideline warning in the first half. After officials marked off 16 yards for the penalty, Armstrong completed a 15-yard pass to Lane Hovey, and the QB scored from four yards out -- both plays came on third down -- to give Nebraska its first lead at 19-17.