Lincoln, Neb. — This time Northwestern prevailed in yet another close game with Nebraska.
Clayton Thorson’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Dan Vitale and Jack Mitchell’s third field goal gave the Wildcats an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and they hung on to win 30-28 on Saturday.
Nebraska won on a Hail Mary the last time Northwestern visited Memorial Stadium. In the teams’ five meetings since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten, four have been decided by three points or less.
The Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) bounced back from consecutive losses of 38-0 to Michigan and 40-10 to Iowa and became bowl eligible for the first time since 2012.
“It’s tough being shut out and then losing by 30. It weighs on you,” Thorson said. “We came together on Monday morning and said we’re not letting this happen, we’re not letting down.”
Thorson passed for 177 yards and ran for a career-high 126. The Wildcats didn’t do a lot offensively early but led 17-12 at half. Thorson broke runs of 68 and 49 yards to set up scores, and Nick VanHoose returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown.
“We stuck together and found a way to make some plays in the first half and make it a game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Great team win, huge team win to get us over the hump.”
For Nebraska, the loss spoiled an afternoon when Tom Osborne and the 1995 national championship team were honored in a pregame ceremony. The ‘95 team, considered one of the greatest in college football history, walked out of the tunnel ahead of the current Huskers and formed a corridor for them to run through.
Nebraska (3-5, 1-3) must win three of its last four to play in a bowl. Its five losses — the most since Bill Callahan’s 2007 team went 5-7 — are by a combined 13 points.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep grinding,” Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “We can either give up or we can keep riding this season out and keep working together.”
Mitchell’s 27-yard field goal put Northwestern up 30-22, but the Huskers drove 75 yards in eight plays to pull within two points. Armstrong’s two-point pass to Stanley Morgan Jr. fell incomplete, and Northwestern was able to run out the final 4:18.
The Huskers led 22-20 on Drew Brown’s 48-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter. Northwestern went ahead with a long drive that saw Thorson convert a couple of third-down passes before he hit Vitale with a pass along the sideline for 37 yards. Vitale dived into the end zone, with the play withstanding a video review.
After Nebraska went three-and-out, Mitchell kicked the field goal that put the Wildcats up by eight points.
Armstrong hit Brandon Reilly for 37 yards on a fourth-and-6 before he ran in from 3 yards to make it a two-point game, but he couldn’t convert on the try for two points.
Anthony Walker made 13 tackles and Dean Lowery had 10 stops, including a school-record six for losses and two sacks for the Wildcats.
“Losing to Iowa was a tough loss,” Lowery said. “We responded well in terms of work ethic and attitude. Fitz at halftime called us out and said we just have to be us out there.”
Northwestern gets a week off before hosting Penn State on Nov. 7.
“We’ve got a big month ahead of us. Postseason eligibility is huge for us,” Fitzgerald said.
Nebraska won at Minnesota on the road in its previous game, and first-year coach Mike Riley said he thought the Huskers had overcome the inconsistency they showed on offense earlier in the season.
That wasn’t the case. The Huskers were limited to a season-low 82 yards rushing, and Armstrong threw 48 passes, completing 24 for 291 yards.
“I told them we’re going to coach football and practice football on Monday and we’re going to continue to work to get better,” Riley said. “Everyone who wants to do that will be there. I think this group will be.”