November 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Nebraska's hopes remain alive thanks to miracle play

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (8) pumps his fist following an after his team won on the final play of the game against Northwestern Saturday in Lincoln, Neb. (Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

It’s amazing what a win can do, no matter how it came to be.

Forget the fact Nebraska was seconds from losing at home to Northwestern. Forget the fact the anti-Bo Pelini crowd in Lincoln was getting ready to pounce. Forget that the parade of Huskers quarterbacks were busy throwing the ball to the wrong team. Forget that the defense took nearly the entire first half before it showed up.

Forget all that because a prayer was answered. The Cornhuskers called Geronimo and Jordan Westerkamp, a receiver with a mustache fit for 1985, hauled in a tipped pass in the end zone on the final play of the game to beat Northwestern, 27-24.

Just like that, frustration turned to jubilation and Nebraska went from getting virtually knocked out of the Legends Division race in the Big Ten to right back in the thick of it.

Who cares if it took a football miracle?

“That was a fun locker room,” Pelini said. “That’s what college football is all about. ... The student-athlete experience.”

It was hard to imagine in the final seconds that the game would end up the way it did. Ron Kellogg, a fifth-year walk-on, was at quarterback after Tommy Armstrong’s third interception had set up Northwestern’s go-ahead field goal with just 1:20 left in the game.

With the seconds ticking away, Kellogg heaved the ball toward the end zone and immediately got nailed by a Wildcats defender. What he didn’t see — he only heard the roar of the crowd — was the ball bounce off a Northwestern defender and into the hands of Westerkamp.

“It sounded like thunder,” said Kellogg, who sprinted around the field in celebration as Westerkamp was mobbed.

Pelini stood on the sidelines stunned, barely able to register what had just happened.

“I saw Westy kind of flash and then I saw the crowd react,” he said, “and when I looked down and the referee put his arms up, I was a little bit in disbelief. Pretty cool.”

Yup, it was pretty cool and the play many call the Hail Mary — the Huskers call it Geronimo — saved Nebraska from what had been adding up to another frustrating day.

While the defense allowed 21 points in the first 19 minutes of the game, the offense — still without injured quarterback Taylor Martinez — could get little going. What it did manage was getting halted by critical penalties in the fourth quarter. The only points Nebraska managed in the second half until the final play came on a 25-yard interception return by defensive end Avery Moss.

It was all leading up to a second straight loss after Nebraska fell at Minnesota last week.

Instead, Westerkamp grabbed a ball he had no intention of giving back.

“I kept it. I held on to it,” he said. “It will probably go home.”

And the Huskers will go on with at least a shot at getting back to the Big Ten championship game. It will be daunting considering Nebraska goes to Michigan this week, followed by a visit from division-leading Michigan State.

But it’s a shot, one that was about to disappear before a final heave.

Geronimo — the Huskers are still alive.

Down the tubes

The fact Northwestern was minutes away from being undefeated and knocking off Ohio State a few weeks ago has been well documented, as has the fact the Wildcats haven’t won since.

And the fact that skid reached five games in the loss to Nebraska isn’t even the worst thing that happened. No, the fact the Wildcats now find themselves likely to miss a bowl game after entering the season as a potential division champion was ground like salt in a wound after a final-second loss on a Hail Mary.

“What words can change your feelings after something like that?” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

He was, of course, talking about the final pass that was tipped by safety Traveon Henry into Westerkamp’s arms. But he could have been talking about the entire season.

Five straight losses and Northwestern must find two wins in the last three games, no easy task when you consider it faces Michigan, Michigan State and travels to Illinois.

The Wildcats get this week off and will try to regroup.

“Maybe I should have done something different,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s on me. Obviously we can’t keep doing this.”

Again, he was talking about the final play, but it might as well have been the entire season, one that began with such promise but is crumbling in stunning fashion.

“The hardest thing to do is win a Big Ten football game,” Fitzgerald said.

Surprisingly, it’s proving too hard for this team.

Badgers still tough

Getting to its third straight Big Ten title game is certainly a long shot for Wisconsin. The Badgers need to run the table and hope Ohio State loses — twice.

Sorry, that’s not likely to happen. But that hardly means the Badgers have nothing to play for. Win out and a shot at a BCS game is possible if Ohio State gets to the national title game. Either way, Wisconsin is playing for bowl placement at this point and it is proving it is amongst the best in the nation.

On Saturday, it relied on a defense that is among the best in the country. Michigan State’s defense has drawn most of the attention this season, and rightfully so, but Wisconsin’s has been nearly as impressive and on Saturday, it was short linebacker Chris Borland and defensive end Tyler Dippel.

It mattered little as the Badgers — the sixth-rated defense in the nation -— delivered a win at Iowa on a day the running game didn’t have quite the punch it has had most of the season. Two late interceptions turned a tight game into an easy Wisconsin win, , 28-9. It also proved the Badgers have what it takes to shut down opponents.

“I think we’re showing that we’re a great defense and we can play against anyone in the country,” said linebacker Marcus Trotter, who replaced Borland.

With the two-man running attack of James White and Melvin Gordon, there is little doubt of that. And it might just be proven in a BCS game at the end of the season.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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