LINCOLN — The blue-chip veteran from California couldn’t watch. He prayed. The do-it-all blue-chip freshman from Kentucky did, too. Without their plays, the heroic native sons wouldn’t have been in position to deliver a vital win for Nebraska football.
But the moment belonged to backup quarterback Noah Vedral and especially walk-on kicker Lane McCallum. Graduates of Wahoo Neumann and Norfolk. Vedral drove the team into position so McCallum had a chance at just about the shortest, easiest, chip-shottiest field goal you’ll ever see to beat pugnacious Northwestern, right at the gun.
McCallum’s kick was low. So low. Like the pressure of a whole state’s expectations pressed down on it.
“Oh, crud,” McCallum thought.
“I could have jumped as high as he kicked that,” NU coach Scott Frost said.
But it punched through from 24 yards — told you it was short — and Nebraska won 13-10. McCallum took off sprinting in the opposite direction. He put his arms out like a plane. He finally stopped about 70 yards away, where he was engulfed by his team in a dogpile of roughly 3,000 pounds.
“That hurt,” McCallum said. “That was not very fun.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t very pretty. It featured just one turnover — that California blue chip, NU corner Lamar Jackson, set up McCallum’s field goal with an interception — but also 19 punts, 14 penalties, lots of TV timeouts, and stretches of play where, as the wind blew, time almost stood still. That happens sometimes in the Big Ten.
Nebraska (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) lost two of its best players, quarterback Adrian Martinez and receiver JD Spielman, in the second half to minor injuries. It also lost the last remnant of a 10-0 first-half lead when Northwestern’s woebegone offense — last in the league in points per game — drove 58 yards for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter. Martinez went down at the end of that quarter. Both teams missed short field goals. McCallum even doinked one off an upright.
“We need to play better,” Frost said frankly, more than once.
It looked like the two NUs were headed for their third straight overtime game — Northwestern won in 2017 and 2018 — when Jackson picked off Wildcat quarterback Aidan Smith at midfield with one minute left. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believed Nebraska got away with pass interference. No flags.
Vedral — who initially picked Central Florida out of high school, then followed Frost back to Nebraska — got his chance at glory. He’s smaller than Martinez and lacks his arm strength, but he knows Frost’s offense better than anyone else on the team, and when Frost picked a play off his call sheet — a switch route down the west sideline — Vedral was game for the moment.
“It’s one of our familiar concepts that our guys know like the back of their hands, so we felt comfortable calling it,” Vedral said.
Especially with Robinson — that Kentucky blue-chipper — as the receiver. Robinson, crucial in a win at Illinois, was the fuel against Northwestern (1-4, 0-3).
The Wildcats’ defense — wise and hard-hitting, rarely allowing a big play because of its deep safeties — smothered every Husker skill player Saturday, except Robinson. He caught seven passes for 123 yards, including a shovel pass that looked like an optical illusion and turned into a 49-yard gain. His 42-yard run went for Nebraska’s only touchdown. He was instant offense — and often the Huskers’ only offense.
So of course when Vedral threw the ball up, toward Robinson’s back shoulder, he turned and caught the ball at Northwestern’s 16.
“Anytime there is a game on the line, I want the ball,” Robinson said, echoing his comments at Illinois. “I want to be able to make the play.”
“He is nice to throw to — promise you that,” Vedral said.
The 16 would be close enough for most kickers. A 33-yarder? No problem if starter Barret Pickering weren’t hurt. But McCallum’s miss had come from 29 yards. At Illinois, he missed one from 27 yards. Frost was so uncertain about McCallum — a converted safety who transferred back from Air Force — that he considered Matt Waldoch, a club soccer player who just joined the team and has never kicked in a college game.
“But it’s hard to put a kid in there who’s never done it in a game,” Frost said.
So Vedral got the team 9 yards closer, down to the 7, where he scrambled while centering the ball in the middle of the field. Fitzgerald let Nebraska run down the clock to three seconds, sitting on his timeouts, choosing to use them to ice McCallum. He considered calling them earlier, but figured Northwestern would block McCallum’s kick.
“Their kicking situation has been, quite frankly, not great,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not rocket science, right?”
Combined, Fitzgerald and Frost make more than $10 million per year. They conduct countless practices, team meetings and press conferences, overseeing teams with more than 100 men for 12 regular-season games per year, one of which — this contest, between these two teams, every year — often comes down to one play, the smallest moment.
Fitzgerald is the heralded coach he is because he often wins these moments. He banked on McCallum missing, and then he banked on winning in overtime, where he hasn’t lost in six years. Northwestern has won five straight overtime games. Nebraska has lost five straight.
So the Husker sideline prayed. Jackson especially. He had faith in McCallum, but Nebraska’s field goals, he said, had been an “issue.”
Frost, who knew the same, called McCallum a name — he wouldn’t say what — in the name of levity. Vedral had played summer basketball with and against McCallum and believed he’d be clutch, although a 3-point shot in some half-empty gym wasn’t quite this stage. McCallum got calmer with each Fitzgerald timeout, and defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said he just laughed at Fitzgerald for calling the timeouts because Nebraska prepares its kickers for just this moment. The moment.
The kick itself looked like a car going into a crash, but it missed all Wildcat hands, fluttered through, sent 89,384 fans home happy and sent McCallum on a sprint that led to a dogpile.
McCallum said he’s had nightmares about winning a game and being suffocated at the bottom of a dogpile.
On Saturday, he emerged from it to be hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates. Some nightmares turn out to be dreams.
“Lucky I’m still alive after that one,” McCallum said. “It was heavy.”
The pile. The pressure. The load off Nebraska’s back.
|Yards per carry||3.8||3.3|
Nebraska is 8-5 all-time against Northwestern.
|South Alabama||Aug. 31|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 14|
|Ohio State||Sept. 28|
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