This was more than just another football game for Northwestern. This was a chance to attain the legitimacy the Wildcats thought they were denied during their regular season, an opportunity to finally silence those who doubted them even as they grabbed a share of the Big Ten title.
On Saturday night Northwestern would take on No. 9 Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl, and a victory would surely erase all the skepticism and cynicism the Cats felt so acutely. For these were the mighty Huskers, the high and haughty Huskers who had spent much of the season ranked No. 1 and openly viewed themselves as part of college football's reigning royalty.
They're a good team, Carlos Polk, Nebraska's middle linebacker, said of NU. But they're not on our level.
That was apparent before halftime. After spotting NU a 10-7 lead on Zak Kustok's touchdown pass to Teddy Johnson, the Huskers buried the Cats in a 31-point second quarter, seized a 38-17 halftime lead and went on to a bowl scoring record in the 66-17 victory, their 10th against two losses. Northwestern finished 8-4.
We played good football teams and showed that we can play at the highest level, Northwestern coach Randy Walker had said before the game. Now this is the highest level. By playing Nebraska you're playing, without question, the program with the greatest tradition in the country. So it's a chance for us to see where we stack up.
On a national scale, the Wildcats have a ways to go. All-America running back Damien Anderson (141 yards in 18 carries) had a 69-yard touchdown run shortly before halftime and broke another long one on NU's first possession of the third quarter, but was otherwise contained. Kustok was constantly pressured by maniacal defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and the Wildcat defense, suspect much of the season, was too often shredded by I-back Dan Alexander and the Huskers' powerful option attack.
In the days leading up to the game, the Huskers admitted they were disappointed to be playing here, and not in Miami's Orange Bowl for the national championship. But just before the start they evinced a different attitude personified by All-American center Dominic Raiola, who performed a throat-slashing gesture as he jogged by a section of jeering NU fans.
Raiola was sending a message with his gesture, a message he and his teammates reiterated it in a most emphatic fashion. A wide-receiver screen to Johnson lost a yard. A crossing pattern to Anderson fell incomplete. Kustok's pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage by Vanden Bosch, whom the Cats never did manage to block.
That's what happened on NU's first possession, and when the Huskers got the ball on their 46-yard line, the offense sent its own message. A reverse to wingback Bobby Newcombe for 5 yards. An option pitch to Alexander for 20 yards. Alexander up the middle for 6 yards. Fullback Willie Miller up the middle for 8 yards. Alexander off right tackle for 15 yards and a touchdown.
That's what happened on Nebraska's first possession, and a pattern was evident. The Husker defense was intent on taking Anderson out of play by lining up as many as eight players in the box and daring Kustok to beat them. He tried, but too often there was Vanden Bosch or another Husker defender harassing him in the backfield and snuffing his efforts.
The Husker offense, in turn, was showing how it had led the nation in rushing, its line opening huge holes.
A physical beating is what the Huskers were administering, but then they mysteriously wasted two possessions by trying to pass the ball, and middle linebacker Billy Silva's intereception gave Northwestern some brief life. Kustok, aided by a fake punt, followed Tim Long's 44-yard field goal with an 18-yard TD strike to Johnson, and the Cats had a 10-7 lead.
Then the Huskers went back to work. Quarterback Eric Crouch ran 50 yards for a touchdown that restored Nebraska's lead. Alexander (241 yards) went 2 yards up the middle for a TD then went over the top for 2 yards and a third touchdown, ending a three-play, 8-yard drive that Newcombe set up with a nifty 39-yard punt return.
When Alexander and Crouch tacked on third-quarter touchdowns it was 52-17.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times