LINCOLN — Nebraska's Big Ten title hopes arrived at their last life Saturday.
Perhaps the tenure of coach Bo Pelini did, too.
But an offense riddled with injuries and rife with errors had a final chance to beat Northwestern from midfield with Ron Kellogg, a fifth-year former walk-on quarterback, pulling the trigger.
Pelini called for the Hail Mary. Code name: Geronimo. Kellogg heaved the ball. A mass of Wildcats tipped it. And Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp jumped right into Husker history when he caught the ball just inside the goal line for a 27-24 walk-off win.
Memorial Stadium boomed in elation. NU's bench erupted with glee, ran to Westerkamp and piled on him. Kellogg ran in the opposite direction, lost in joy. Pelini briefly raised his hands, lowered them, and stood, dumbstruck, as the play rolled again on the video screen.
Yes, Bo, this is your life.
“I saw Westy kind of flash, and I saw the crowd react,” Pelini said afterward. “When I looked down and saw the referee put his arms up, I was a little bit in disbelief.”
Pelini paused, close to tears.
“Pretty cool,” he said.
Said offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles: “That'll be remembered in this place forever. That's something that I'll remember forever.”
And Kellogg: “Thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”
And Westerkamp: “I was just kind of there by myself, and I was able to make the play.”
The mustachioed redshirt freshman doesn't get that chance, however, if Nebraska's embattled defense doesn't execute a stunning in-game reversal that withstood four turnovers and consistent lack of execution from the Huskers' offense.
After NU (6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten) surrendered 21 points in the first quarter-and-a-half, it stoned Northwestern (4-5 and 0-5) on the next 12 drives, none of which was longer than six plays. The Huskers forced 10 punts, returned an interception for a touchdown and came up with a crucial stop to force a field goal on a short field.
“The way they came back was pretty special,” Pelini said. “They flew around and played hard.”
Never more so than Northwestern's final drive, which started 7 yards from Nebraska's goal line after Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong was intercepted for the third time. The game tied at 21, Nebraska briefly discussed letting the Wildcats score before deciding against it.
Give me three downs and a field goal, defensive coordinator John Papuchis told his players. He believed he'd get it.
He and Pelini had already staged a key intervention with the defense in the first half, after a three-man front was getting gashed by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter.
“We weren't proud of the way we came out,” defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The last thing we wanted to do was let Kain take over the game. And that's what it looked like.”
After Northwestern gained 160 yards on 18 plays and took a 14-7 lead, Papuchis and Pelini asked players for a rare thing: their opinion. What defense do you want to run, they asked. Players preferred a switch back to the four-man front and basic principles. Papuchis and Pelini agreed and sent blitz after blitz at the Wildcats. Fun defense. Fast defense.
“They got out of coach mode,” said freshman linebacker Josh Banderas. “They had a conversation with us. They got real with us. They're always real, but they got personal. ... We felt more like a team. We were in this together. It wasn't coaches giving us instruction. It was 'we're in it all together.' ”
Papuchis said he saw his defense play in “a zone” for the final half, especially when end Avery Moss stuck his paws in the air, picked off a pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 21. So Papuchis believed the defense would be able to stop the Wildcats' one-dimensional run game for three plays.
He was right. After Colter surged to the Nebraska 1 on first down, the front seven stuffed the next two plays for losses. Northwestern made its field goal. But the Huskers had their hope.
“The defensive stand of the year, in my opinion,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “Gave us the chance to go down there and do what we did.”
In front of 91,140 fans at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers had 74 seconds. Beck chose Kellogg over Armstrong to run the two-minute drill. Early in the drive, Kellogg converted a fourth-and-15 when he threw to running back Ameer Abdullah, who just made the line to gain.
“I love throwing the check-down,” Kellogg said.
“People will probably forget that play by tonight or tomorrow,” Pelini said. “But that play was huge.”
Kellogg hit wide receiver Sam Burtch for 7 and 4 yards to reach the Northwestern 49. Four seconds left. Nebraska considered running a hook-and-lateral instead of a Hail Mary. Pelini wanted the deep ball.
“No one panicked,” Pelini said.
NU practices Geronimo on occasion without really running it. It's more of a strategy session for the offense and defense. The goal of the offense is to put Quincy Enunwa in the middle of a mob while three receivers — two in front, one in back — form a triangle around him. Westerkamp roamed behind. Perhaps if it had been Jamal Turner or Kenny Bell — two receivers out for the game with injuries — Northwestern would have paid more attention to the guy in back. But Westerkamp was alone.
Kellogg, who rarely enjoyed good protection on the final drive, finally got it for his last pass. He rolled to his right and uncorked the ball for the far right corner of the south end zone.
“I didn't know I could throw it that far, honestly,” Kellogg quipped. After he threw the ball, he was kneed in the head and didn't see the result. He just heard it.
“Thunder,” Kellogg said.
The ball hit hands around the 1. The Wildcats tipped the ball backward, Enunwa said, where Westerkamp leaped, caught the ball around his chin and bounded out of the end zone. Burtch jumped on him and said, “I love you!” The mob followed.
Northwestern's players stood stunned, crushed. Pelini, instead of celebrating, walked over to a trio of Wildcats and consoled them. They were almost too hurt to notice.
“There's no loser in a game like that,” Pelini said. Words only a winning coach could say.
Insistent upon his process, nose to the grindstone, Pelini said his team would put its head down and march to Michigan, a team beaten so soundly Saturday by Michigan State that its starting quarterback, Devin Gardner, sat on the bench muddy and moping by game's end.
The Huskers will go to the Big House with their goals still in reach thanks to a defense that found its fight and an offense that created a great finish.
“Whether we caught that ball or didn't catch that ball, it's still the same team tomorrow,” Pelini said.
But minutes later, he showed he knew the real magnitude of Geronimo.
“They'll be grandparents, telling their kids about that game some day,” Pelini said.
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Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska quarterback talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska wide receiver talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern: