EVANSTON, Ill. — Nebraska’s defense wanted to ensure that Northwestern’s offense was relegated to one dimension on Saturday.
The Huskers managed just that, but they couldn’t slow down senior quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats’ passing attack when it mattered most.
Thorson completed 41-of-64 for 455 yards and a trio of touchdowns — the last tied the game with 12 seconds left after a 99-yard drive — and, though he threw two interceptions, NU didn’t make life tough enough on him.
Thorson dropped back nearly 70 times overall and was sacked just twice, once by Ben Stille and once by Luke Gifford, and was hurried on a few other occasions, but mostly had time to let his receiving corps work.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit knew the task and just couldn’t make enough plays.
“Coach Chins talked about it all week that we’re going to have to be able to get after them because they’re going to throw it a lot,” Gifford said. “We did dial up a lot of different things. I think some of them were pretty successful and there were other things we could have done a little bit better.
“We had to dial it up for sure.”
Thorson threw the ball 43 times in the second half alone and the Wildcats eschewed the run on each of their final 37 plays on the afternoon but still found a way to win despite averaging less than 2 yards per carry for the second straight week.
“He’s a good quarterback and you’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Gifford said. “He’s pretty elusive back there, he makes you miss. They do a good job of running some quick routes and underneath stuff that gets the ball out quick.”
Nagel a nuisance: Flynn Nagel had Nebraska’s number all afternoon. The senior slot receiver racked up 220 receiving yards and two scores on 12 catches, marking the most yardage by any Big Ten receiver since 2013.
Northwestern moved Nagel around and got him matched up in good situations — against senior safety Aaron Williams and others — time and again.
“We were playing zone, we were blitzing, we were playing man. We didn’t cover him,” Frost said. “It isn’t like we forgot to cover him. We didn’t cover him. He made plays. He made more plays than the guys covering him made. We’ve got to fix that, keep working on technique, keep working on pass rush, keep working on recruiting.”
Nagel did most of his damage in the fourth quarter and overtime, catching six passes for 132 and a touchdown down the stretch.
Points on the field: Among the most glaring problems for Nebraska against Northwestern was leaving four points on the board in the kicking game.
Freshman placekicker Barret Pickering missed a 45-yarder in the first quarter and a point-after touchdown in the second, hitting the right upright in both instances.
Pickering did bounce back and hit a 34-yarder that gave NU a 10-point cushion with 5:41 remaining, but every point matters in an overtime game.
“We’ve got a young kicker and he’s going to be fine,” Frost said. “He’s going to be fine.”
Frost did admit that the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime was at least partially influenced by Pickering’s earlier struggles in the kicking game, though he also said he thought it was natural to put the game in the hands of his senior tailback Devine Ozigbo.
A bad snap from senior center Tanner Farmer wrecked the play before it ever had a chance of succeeding.
Big debut for Armstrong: Isaac Armstrong saw his first game action last week against Wisconsin, and the walk-on punter had a big debut in his first start.
Armstrong averaged 45.8 yards on five punts, hit a 57-yarder and pinned the Wildcats inside the 20 twice.
Armstrong’s best kick came when the Huskers need it most, pinning Northwestern on its own 1-yard line with a 43-yard boot with 2:02 remaining.
He also hit a 49-yarder that benefited from some roll, but the Lincoln Southwest graduate further entrenched himself as the starter over Caleb Lightbourn with his showing here.
Martinez laments INTs: Adrian Martinez threw for 251 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 37 yards, but lamented two interceptions he threw against Northwestern on Saturday.
The first came when he tried to hit Jaron Woodyard over the top in the third quarter with the Huskers already up 20-14.
"I definitely thought I was going to be able to take a shot there," Martinez said. "I didn't anticipate the backside safety coming back into the play, and that's obviously my mistake. But I thought we had a good shot there and I thought Jaron, with his speed, was going to be able to take the top off the defense there. Just put the blame on my shoulders on that one."
The second came in overtime after a bad snap from Farmer forced the Huskers into scramble mode.
"Just make a play, knowing it was fourth down," Martinez said of his thought process. "Try not to panic and try to make something happen. I threw it up there as a last shot, probably could have put more on it, but just trying to make something out of the play.
"We have drills for things like that, scramble drill, and obviously a lot of guys adjust on the fly."
'No other direction but up': Martinez has made just five collegiate starts, but he's going to be counted on to help the Huskers try to dig out of this hole.
He knows it.
"It's tough. I don't necessarily think of it as me being a freshman. I know I have to assume a leadership role. I have to keep these guys going. We can't get down, we can't give up, we can't stop believing in each other.
"There's no other direction but up. We need to keep going."
Travel roster notes: A number of players who missed the road trip to Wisconsin due to injury were with the Huskers this weekend, including defensive lineman Deontre Thomas, safety JoJo Domann and outside linebacker Guy Thomas.
Domann has not played since the season-opener against Colorado. Deontre Thomas missed only last week and Guy Thomas has played sparingly so far this fall.
Also on the trip: Freshman tight end Katerian Legrone. Legrone has not appeared in a game this fall.
Senior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg is here on a waiver but is not expected to be available to play for some time.
Those who made the trip to Wisconsin but were not in Evanston on Saturday (in addition to quarterback Matt Masker, who was sent home when Noah Vedral was made eligible): freshman CB Braxton Clark, freshman TE Cameron Jurgens (broken foot), defensive lineman Damian Jackson and outside linebacker Jordan Paup.
* Freshman safety CJ Smith went down with an apparent left leg injury and needed assistance from a golf cart to get off the field.
* Gifford recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and now has a team-best 10 this season.
* JD Spielman’s 42-yard touchdown in the first quarter gives him six on the season, best on the team.
* Freshman running back Maurice Washington scored his first career touchdown with a 3-yard run in the fourth quarter. Washington finished with 32 rushing yards.