Northwestern flips script to earn a return trip to postseason

Saturday's win at Nebraska ended a two-game skid and got Northwestern to six wins, but Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats want more. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Early in its week of preparation for Nebraska -- and two days after it fell flat against Iowa on Oct. 17 -- Northwestern convened as a team and violated a chief rule of sports.

“We’re not letting this happen,” quarterback Clayton Thorson said Saturday after the Wildcats beat Nebraska 30-28 to end a two-game skid, recalling the vow of the previous week. “We’re not going down this road.”

To issue such a declaration, even within the inner sanctum of the team, signifies a recognition of past failures. It points to a seven-game losing streak that wrecked the 2013 season after a strong start and a four-game slide last year that led to a second straight 5-7 finish and another December at home.

So much for the week-to-week mentality. Cliches be damned; Northwestern was intent to set this season apart from the past two.

A loss Saturday in Lincoln, heading into an open date this week and followed by a treacherous November, could have proved crippling.

The Wildcats responded with an opportunistic performance. They stopped Nebraska's two-point conversion with four minutes to play, then managed three first downs to secure a second victory in three trips to Lincoln since 2011.

The win secured bowl eligibility for Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten), important after the recent, narrow misses. But it’s not the goal, the Wildcats said.

“It’s great to hit that mark,” senior cornerback Nick VanHoose said. “But six [wins] is obviously not what we want.”

The postseason appearance will mark the sixth in 10 years under coach Pat Fitzgerald and first since 2012, when the Wildcats beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Before Fitzgerald’s promotion to head coach, Northwestern played in five bowl games -- all since 1995 -- in 57 years.

So no, they don’t take this stuff granted in Evanston.

“A huge team win to get us over the hump,” Fitzgerald said after the win Saturday. “But six is not the destination. We didn’t talk in camp and [getting] to six wins.

“I’m proud of the way the guys fought, and I’m proud of their resiliency."

Northwestern leaned on its defense to start 5-0, with featured wins over Stanford and Duke. But in losing 38-0 at Michigan and 40-10 to the Hawkeyes, it gained 4.56 yards per offensive play to rank 123rd nationally out of 128 teams over a two-week period.

Against Nebraska, the Wildcats possessed the football for just 21 minutes, 2 seconds -- and that includes 9:14 in the fourth quarter. But they made the most of their chances, gaining 5.95 yards per play.

“Being shut out and losing by 30, it’s tough,” said Thorson, who threw for 177 yards and rushed Saturday in a performance illustrative of the potential his coaches saw in choosing the redshirt freshman over two more experienced options to start in August. “It weighs on you. You’re always looking to see where we’ve got to improve.

“I think we just stayed together. I think that was a big part of it.”

Fitzgerald pushed his players in practice last week with up-tempo work.

“Guys were getting after it,” said defensive end Dean Lowry, who set a school record against the Cornhuskers with six tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Linebacker Anthony Walker said the Wildcats never worried about falling into the 2013-14 pattern.

“Not at all,” Walker said. “We just had to come out and play our game. I think we got away from that the past two weeks.”

Fitzgerald plans to hit the road to recruit this week. He’ll think about bowl destinations later. A Halloween party awaits Friday, and they’ll be in a better mood, for sure, as a bowl-eligible program before the month of November.

“I don’t know if we ever lost our mojo,” Fitzgerald said. “I hate to disappoint bloggers, but our guys don’t listen to them. It’s just the way the world is today -- you win five games, and everyone tells you how good you are.

“I said it. ‘We are not that good.’”

For two weeks, he was on target. Then the Wildcats went off script, daring to put more at stake against Nebraska than the outcome of one game.

It paid off with a victory they’ll remember in December.