LINCOLN, Neb. – If Nebraska makes it back to the Big Ten championship game, the Cornhuskers might look at Jordan Westerkamp's tipped-ball touchdown on the last play against Northwestern as the one that saved their season and maybe even Bo Pelini's job.
The Huskers (6-2, 3-1) head to Michigan this week alone in second place behind Michigan State (8-1, 5-0). If they win — Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is 19-0 at the Big House — they would play the Spartans for a share of first place and the tie-breaker Nov. 16 in Lincoln. Michigan State has a bye this week.
Had Westerkamp not come up with Ron Kellogg III's 49-yard desperation heave to beat the Wildcats 27-24, Nebraska would have had to immediately turn to other teams for help to win the division, and sixth-year coach Bo Pelini's seat would have become hotter.
"After a play like that, it can change the whole momentum of the season," Kellogg said. "We still have four games left before the Big Ten championship game, and we have to win them all, so we just have to keep driving."
The Huskers had come into the Northwestern game off a loss at double-digit underdog Minnesota. That, combined with the second-half meltdown at home against UCLA in September and the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten title game, fueled media and fan speculation that Pelini's days in Lincoln might be numbered.
That talk is on hold now.
"It sounds crazy, but sometimes a win or even a loss masks things one way or another," Pelini said. "Whether we caught that ball in the end zone or didn't catch that ball, we're still the same football team coming in tomorrow. The same challenges lie ahead. It's just a little easier to handle. It's easier to go in tomorrow. Hopefully, the momentum will carry over into next week and, hopefully, help propel us forward."
Nebraska has a number of injury concerns heading into the game at Ann Arbor, Mich.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez's status for the rest of the season remains in question as he recovers from foot, shoulder and hip injuries. Pelini said he plans to have Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Kellogg continue to share playing time.
The Huskers' best offensive lineman, Spencer Long, was lost to a season-ending knee injury Oct. 12. Another starting offensive lineman, Jack Cotton, went out with a sprained ligament in his right knee in the second half against Northwestern. A groin injury kept receiver Kenny Bell on the sidelines in the second half, and receiver Jamal Turner has been battling hamstring problems all season.
A maligned defense put the Huskers in position to win Saturday, and it will go into the Michigan game with a shot of confidence.
Northwestern used two 75-yard drives and a short field set up by an interception to lead 21-7 early in the second quarter.
But the Wildcats punted on 10 of their next 11 series, and the other ended on an interception. Only one of those 11 possessions lasted more than five plays, and there were five three-and-outs.
The biggest stop came after Tyler Scott returned Northwestern's fourth interception of the game to the Nebraska 7 with 2:25 to play. Kain Colter ran to the 1 before Ciante Evans and David Santos combined to tackle Treyvon Green for a 1-yard loss and Randy Gregory hit Colter for a 2-yard loss. Jeff Budzien's 21-yard field goal put Northwestern up three points.
Even though the Huskers went into their final drive with no timeouts and just over a minute to play, it wasn't quite desperation time, Kellogg said.
"I was thinking field goal," he said, "especially when I threw the ball to Quincy (Enunwa) and he dropped it" on the second-to-last play. "I figured we would go into overtime."
The comeback from a 14-point deficit marked the fifth time in two seasons that Nebraska has overcome a double-digit deficit to win a Big Ten game.
"Hopefully, we'll take all that momentum and bring it back this week to get ready for Michigan," Westerkamp said.