The Nebraska offense was bound to show up in a big way at some point Saturday afternoon in Evanston. And when it finally did, a Northwestern defense prone to late collapses was there to watch it happen.
Those factors met up late Saturday afternoon, with the Cornhuskers scoring 13 points in the final six minutes to beat the Wildcats, 29-28, in the teams' first matchup in Evanston since 1931.
The Nebraska offense had no problem racking up yards, but found the end zone just once through three quarters. That changed quickly in the second half, as quarterback Taylor Martinez threw for two touchdowns and ran for another after halftime. After an 8-yard touchdown pass to Taariq Allen with six minutes to play, Martinez found Ben Cotton in the back of the end zone with just over two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, giving the Cornhuskers the lead for good.
Northwestern then had a chance to win the game with a field goal after stopping Nebraskas two-point conversion attempt after Cottons score. Trevor Siemians arm got the Wildcats offense inside the Nebraska 40 yard-line, but the offense stalled and Jeff Budzein narrowly missed a 53-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining.
I felt like we gave ourselves a chance to win the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald said, and down the stretch we didnt make one more play that we need to make. Its a tough pill to swallow, but as a competitor, its reality sometimes. Heck of a battle, just ended up one play short.
It was new week, same story for the Northwestern defense. Fitzgeralds group held Martinez and the Cornhuskers offense to only 383 yards and 16 points through three quarters, but suffered a fate all too familiar in the final quarter. The Cornhuskers scored a season-low in points, but finished with 543 total yards of offense.
Two weeks ago, Penn State scored 22 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to beat the Wildcats 39-28 in Happy Valley. And the Wildcats survived a late scare three weeks ago against Indiana when the Hoosiers scored 29 second half points.
In eight games, Northwestern has allowed 63 points in the first half and 121 in the second half.
That trend continued on Saturday, as the Northwestern defense and special teams held Martinez in the first half to 10 points, and forced three turnovers, all fumble recoveries. But the Northwestern offense couldnt shift the games momentum, scoring just seven points on the three takeaways while being forced to punt eight times.
Siemian and quarterback Kain Colter constantly saw eight- and nine-man fronts and couldnt adjust accordingly, overthrowing targets on the outside where they attacked single-coverage against the Cornhuskers. Siemian did find Tony Jones on the outside for a 26-yard touchdown catch late in the first half, but the Wildcats were otherwise shut down in the passing game.
If we make one of those catches and throws, its a different game, Fitzgerald said. We ended up making one for the touchdown pass, but there were about four or five other ones that, if theyre gonna play 1-on-1 against us, we have to go out there and take advantage of it. And we just couldnt make those plays.
Siemian finished 15-of-35 for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats did take advantage of the heavy boxes Nebraskas defense threw their way, as running back Venric Mark took Northwesterns fourth play from scrimmage in the second half 80 yards untouched for a score. The junior finished with 118 yards on 16 carries before leaving in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury. That score extended the Wildcats lead to 21-10, and for a moment seemed the momentum had shifted.
But the Cornhuskers struck next. The teams traded punts on their next possessions -- much like they did in the first half -- before Martinez scored from three yards out on a six-play, 49-yard drive. The Cornhuskers missed the two-point conversion that would have cut the lead to a field goal, and trailed 21-16.
Running back Mike Trumpy, filling in for the injured Mark answered Martinez by scoring from three yards out after Fitzgerald opted to go for a 4th and inches inside the Nebraska 10 yard-line. Kain Colter used a second effort on a quarterback keeper to pick up the first down.
I felt like we needed touchdowns instead of field goals, Fitzgerald said. Their offense is so darn explosive that you never feel like youve got the thing in the bag. And we thought a touchdown would give us a little bit of an extension with the lead. And for the most part our defense was playing pretty well, too.
Explosive may have been an understatement for the Nebraska offense down the stretch.
Following Trumpys touchdown, Martinez led two scoring drives in the final 8 minutes in which he was 10-13 for 140 yards and the two touchdown passes. Martinez finished the game 27-of-39 for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
Nebraska moved to 2-1 in the Big Ten Legends Division with the win, while the Wildcats fell to 2-2 and will now need help to have a chance at the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis.