Just call Northwestern the runless wonders. And call it a winner.
Despite a sputtering running game that again left them with a one-dimensional offense, the Wildcats pulled out a 34-31 overtime victory Saturday at Ryan Field that left winless Nebraska frustrated.
Trailing 31-21, NU scored twice in the final 2:27 of regulation of an entertaining and dramatic game. Taking over at their own 1-yard line with 2:02 left, the Wildcats marched 99 yards in eight plays, tying the score 31-31 on a five-yard pass from Clayton Thorson — who had a career day despite two interceptions — to J.J. Jefferson with 12 seconds left.
‘‘That’s about as good as you can get,’’ NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever put them 99½ yards, no timeouts, two minutes to go in practice. Obviously, we put ourselves in a hole. To have the guys be resilient and make some huge plays down the stretch, that’s absolutely spectacular. Clayton managed it like a senior quarterback, like an NFL player, a pro.’’
The Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten), who face a Wisconsin-Notre Dame-Iowa gauntlet after a trip next weekend to Rutgers, have given themselves a chance to salvage a solid season.
‘‘I think this could really inspire us to keep working,’’ said defensive end Samdup Miller, who led NU with 14 tackles. ‘‘A win like this, it shows we have the guts, no matter the situation, to keep fighting.’’
The Cornhuskers (0-6, 0-4), who are saddled with the worst start in school history, botched the first possession of overtime. That allowed the Wildcats to win with a 37-yard field goal by Drew Luckenbaugh, who was 2-for-3 in his college debut subbing for injured Charlie Kuhlbander.
After the game-winner, teammates mobbed Luckenbaugh, who shook off a hurried shank on his first field-goal attempt.
‘‘I was a little excited to go out there for the first one,’’ Luckenbaugh said. ‘‘As I was growing up, we had a saying: ‘Fix it and forget it.’ I just moved on and fixed it for the next one.’’
NU won despite rushing for only 32 yards on 23 carries. Last week, it ran eight times for 20 yards in its victory at Michigan State.
‘‘That hasn’t really been our recipe around here,’’ said Fitzgerald, who lost Justin Jackson to the NFL in the offseason and Jeremy Larkin for medical reasons this fall. ‘‘Right now it’s Clayton Thorson, the thrower. You have to adapt. That’s where were at.’’
It worked. Thorson was 41-for-64 for 455 yards — all career highs — and tied his career high with three touchdowns.
‘‘It’s pretty cool; it’s a challenge,’’ Thorson said of throwing against a defense that’s stacked for the pass because the run isn’t effective. ‘‘They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do. It’s just who’s better.’’
Thorson got a huge boost from receiver Flynn Nagel, who caught 12 passes for a career-high 220 yards, including 21- and 61-yard touchdowns.
‘‘I’ll remember going down by 10 and looking around and seeing the life in the guys’ eyes, knowing we can move the ball,’’ Thorson said when asked what he’ll recall about this game at future homecomings. ‘‘Seeing Flynn tell the guys: ‘We’re gonna win this game. Nothing’s going to stop us.’ That long drive was pretty special. [Nagel] was out of his mind. On that last drive, he said: ‘Throw me the ball. This is why I’m here.’ ’’
Nagel broke into a smile when asked about that moment.
‘‘That’s the most fun football game I’ve ever been a part of,’’ said Nagel, a senior from Lemont. ‘‘A come-from-behind win . . . just trusting all the guys around me, that’s what it comes down to. I think I was just in the zone. We have so many playmakers. Trust is the biggest thing.’’