LINCOLN — Seconds before "The Catch II", "Wester-Catch", "The Stache" — whichever moniker will be used to describe one of the greatest plays in Nebraska football history — faint cries against head coach Bo Pelini echoed from the south end of Memorial Stadium.
Facing a second consecutive Big Ten loss, Pelini and his Huskers needed saving against Northwestern (4-5, 0-5) on Saturday night.
Enter two unlikely heroes — third-string quarterback Ron Kellogg III and redshirt freshman receiver Jordan Westerkamp.
On the final play of the game, Kellogg put all his weight in a throw that was tipped near the goalline before Westerkamp hauled in the deflection for a 49-yard game-winning touchdown.
The play, which sealed Nebraska's (6-2, 3-1) 27-24 win, is believed to be the first walk-off Hail Mary in program history. And it sent away those dark skies that had begun to swirl over Lincoln just before the final throw.
"I was looking down there and I saw the tip in the air. I saw Westerkamp just kind of flash. Then I saw the crowd react," said Pelini, fighting back tears. "I was in a little bit of disbelief — it was pretty cool."
"It still really hasn't hit me. It's crazy — it will be a memorable play," said Westerkamp, whose first career touchdown catch only highlighted his best day as Husker, finishing with four catches for 104 yards. "I didn't really know I was fully in the end zone. I just sort of reached backwards. But then after a few seconds, the pile came."
In the postgame celebration, Westerkamp was mauled by thousands of pounds of Huskers, Kellogg ran around like a mad-man and then gave a big hug to his best friend, injured quarterback Taylor Martinez.
"He said, 'Great play, that was amazing.' And I said, 'Yeah, I guess it was.' Taylor had faith in me and knew I could do it," Kellogg said.
A large majority of the crowd of 91,140 stayed in the stands, celebrating right along with the players. The roar from the fans after the catch created an earthquake on the field, and one can only imagine what that sound might've felt like to fans that left to beat traffic just after Northwestern place kicker Jeff Budzien put the Wildcats up 24-21 on a 21-yard field goal with 1:05 left in the game.
"It was a roar. Our crowd stepped up today, I mean, they always do," Pelini said. "Our crowd was special today. That was a juiced up stadium."
"It sounded like thunder," added Kellogg. "I didn't even know what happened. I really don't know. I'm still stunned by it myself. Insane.
"But thank God for Jordan Westerkamp."
The game wasn't pretty by any means for both teams.
For his second-straight start, redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw three interceptions — included a key one late in the fourth quarter to Northwestern's Tyler Scott, who returned it 29 yards down to the NU 7-yard line.
The game will be remembered for its final play, but the overall play of a much improved Nebraska defense made a big difference, too.
The Huskers held the Wildcats to only a field goal, even after Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter scampered 6 yards down to the 1-yard line on 1st and Goal. But NU held strong, earning back-to-back tackles for loss to keep the visitors out of the endzone.
Trailing 21-14 midway through the third quarter, the Huskers received a huge lift when sophomore Randy Gregory nailed Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian, forcing a bad throw that was intercepted and returned 25-yards for a touchdown by redshirt freshman Avery Moss.
When the Wildcats hit the field goal with a minute left in the game, it snapped a streak of 11-straight drives where the Nebraska defense held Northwestern scoreless.
Northwestern managed just 326 yards of total offense, including 81 through the air. After Green's touchdown in the second quarter, the Wildcats managed just 143 yards on 45 plays the rest of the day.
Not bad for a Husker defense that had its coveted Blackshirts taken away in the week of practice prior to the game.
When the defense took to the field to try and hold Northwestern out of the endzone on its final drive, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he could see a difference in his guys. It finally felt like the swagger was back.
"We started feeling good about ourselves. They were confident and they started believing in themselves. The guys were starting to have fun," Papuchis said. "As a matter of fact (before the goal line stand), they were talking about getting a turnover and knocking the ball out. I kind've had to temper them down. Not that I didn't want them to get the ball out, but they had to tackle first. You know, they did a good job. We had to make sure we'd get the ball back down three. That way we could at least tie the game with a field goal.
"We didn't quite get into field goal range — thank God — because we knew Ronny would be able to throw it up and Jordan would catch it."
The defense's stand wasn't the only thing big break that set up Westerkamp's miraculous final play.
Facing a 4th-and-15 on the last drive, Kellogg scrambled and found junior running back Ameer Abdullah four yards behind the sticks. But Abdullah, whose quietly becoming on the nation's best kept secrets, fought for five yards after making a catch to keep the drive alive.
Two plays later, another catch may have kept the season alive.
"Unbelievable. People will probably forget that play, but that was huge," Pelini said of Abdullah's fourth-down conversion. "That's just guys making plays and doing what they can and staying the course, fightin tooth and nail to try to win."
On Saturday, Abdullah became the conference's top rusher as he finished with 127 yards on 24 totes. Late in the second quarter, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for this season. He's had 100-plus yards rushing in seven of the team's eight games this season.
Armstrong and the offense started the game on a high. Less than three minutes in, Armstrong capped an 8-play 76-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run — marking the fifth consecutive game where the Huskers scored on their first possession.
The young quarterback also hit on nine of his first 10 passes. But after the opening score, Northwestern took control of the game.
Treyvon Green scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the first quarter to give the Wildcats a 14-7 advantage. He added a 10-yard rushing score in the second quarter to push the lead to 21-7.
Green led the visitors with 150 yards rushing on 19 carries. Colter finished with 124 yards on 23 carries.
Midway through the second quarter, Armstrong found senior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa in the end zone for a 3-yard score to cut the lead to a touchdown at the break.
By that point, the Blackshirts were in a groove. But the maligned offense playing without it's quarterback, best offensive lineman and a few of its better receivers couldn't take advantage.
While the defense was holding a potent Wildcat offense off the scoreboard, the Nebraska offense was forced to punt on five-straight drives.
"I thought we left things out thee. I don't know, we'll just have to see the film," Pelini said. "Tommy made some young mistakes. At the end of the day, we found a way to win as a team. That's all we can do at this point."
"We'll take it for what it is," Westerkamp added. "Now we have to focus on Michigan."
NOTES: With the win, Nebraska became bowl-eligible for the sixth time under Pelini and 50th time in school history...Nebraska earned its seventh consecutive conference win at home. The Huskers are 9-1 in Big Ten home games since joining the conference...The rally from 14 points down marked the fifth time in the past two seasons that Nebraska has rallied from a double-digit deficit to win a Big Ten game, including each of the last two seasons against Northwestern...Moss' interception return marked the third interception for a defensive end this season. The return also marked the fourth pick-six of the season for the Huskers. The school record is five, set in both 1995 and 1971...Nebraska recorded four sacks against Northwestern, marking the fifth time in the past six games where the Huskers have recorded three or more sacks.