The Catch: How It Happened
It’s too early for an Oral History of the Hail Mary, but we’re going to use that format to tell the story of Nebraska’s stunning game-winning touchdown anyway. Call it an “Oral Present” if you will.
Here’s how the final minutes of the Huskers win played out according to those who played and coached.
With just over two minutes to go, quarterback Tommy Armstrong throws an interception – his third on the day – to defensive end Tyler Scott, giving Northwestern the ball inside the Huskers’ 10-yard line. They have two timeouts left.
NORTHWESTERN DE TYLER SCOTT: I didn’t think it was over, but I just thought it gave us a good chance to win. Our offense put up three points and left it out there for the defense to go and finish the game.
NEBRASKA COACH BO PELINI: I didn’t really have to say anything to [the defense]. They took that field with an attitude.
NEBRASKA CB CIANTE EVANS: I told the guys, especially the guys up front, that we need them. We fought today. We kept fighting.
NEBRASKA DE AVERY MOSS: It was crazy. We saw the interception go and Coach (Papuchis) just came up to us and was like, “I know you guys can do this. We are going to get three stops and then we are going to try and stop a field goal. We’ll see what happens after that.” Sure enough we came out and gave him three stops.
Trailing 24-21 with no timeouts left, Nebraska sends Ron Kellogg III out to helm the final drive. It starts at the Huskers’ 17-yard line.
PELINI: I always said that if we ever got into a two-minute situation, it’d probably be Ronnie.
NEBRASKA QB RON KELLOGG: They told me after (Northwestern) kicked a field goal that I was going in. Basically I just wanted to collect my mind and thoughts and pick out who I was going to throw the ball to in a pressure situation.
I was extremely nervous when coach said I was going in the game with a minute left. But after talking to Coach Bo (Pelini), he calmed me down a little bit. He said that I’ve done it before. The two-minute drill is my forte, I guess. They just had faith in me. That’s all I needed.
Kellogg completes his first two passes to Ameer Abdullah, stopping the clock both times. But a sack and an incompletion leave Nebraska facing a fourth-and-15 from its own 24.
Northwestern covers the next play well, forcing Kellogg to throw to Abdullah short of the first down marker.
KELLOGG: I personally love throwing to the checkdown, especially if you have Ameer Abdullah. He can make people miss and he’s usually good at getting first downs anyway. They had everyone else covered deep and I noticed that no one was covering the flats or anything underneath so I just thought maybe Ameer could get the first down. He did.
PELINI: I had a pretty good angle on it. I saw that he was gonna make it to the sticks. But that was a great play. When he first caught it, I was like ‘Oh, why did he throw that?’. Then Ameer made the play. People will probably forget about that play by tonight or tomorrow. But that was a huge play.
NORTHWESTERN COACH PAT FITZGERALD: We got them in 4th-and-15 and we had two guys with him four yards short and their guy fought harder to get the first down. That is what it looked like to me.
Following the first down, Kellogg finds Sam Burtch on the sideline for two straight receptions, resulting in another first down at the Northwestern 49-yard line. A pass over the middle to Quincy Enunwa, which would’ve put the Huskers in range for a long field goal attempt, falls incomplete. There are 4 seconds left and the #Huskers are 49 yards away.
PELINI: (A Hail Mary play is) not something that’s real easy to practice. We go through that in camp and pre-season, but we don’t actually throw it. We kind of put everybody in place. That’s something that’s kind of hard to practice. It’s something where you’ve got to just step up and make a play.
KELLOGG: What I saw was Ameer Abdullah checked in with the right tackle. I thought I could buy some time over there. And then I noticed that the guy that was on our center went to the left, so I though I could go back inside. I basically wanted to draw as much attention to myself as possible to let those guys get down there, then just heave it.
NEBRASKA WIDE RECEIVER JORDAN WESTERKAMP: Quincy usually runs down the field and the other guys surround him to get the tip. I just remember all the guys on defense running up to the beginning of the end zone.
SCOTT: Our defensive backs are taught to knock it down. I saw the ball go up and in that circumstance you never know what is going to happen. It’s a coin flip as to who will come down with it.
FITZGERALD: We have guys on guys and then you can never let somebody get behind the pile. I couldn’t see it, I was blocked, I don’t know if Jordan was the back side receiver and ran behind everyone or what it was. That is pretty much it.
PELINI: We have jumpers and we have the guy looking for the tip ball. We do it so we can talk about it offensively, but also for defense in case we end up in that situation. You’ve got to execute on both sides. I bet [Northwestern] had someone that probably wasn’t in the position they wanted them to be in. I don’t know how they played that.
After buying time, Kellogg heaved the ball from the Huskers half of the field. It made it to the goal line and bounced off a Wildcats’ defender.
PELINI: 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. When I looked down and I saw the referee put his arms up, I was in a little bit of disbelief.
WESTERKAMP: I just thought to catch it. Catch it and bring it in. Don’t let anybody hit it out.
Following the catch, most of the Huskers’ sideline heads for the south end zone to join a growing mob. Kellogg goes the other way.
KELLOGG: I was telling (QBs coach) Joe (Ganz), I felt like I just hit a shot for the Final Four. I didn’t know what to do. I got hit in the head so I didn’t know where anything was. Then I heard the crowd so I just sprinted to the North end zone.
WESTERKAMP: I didn’t really know I was fully in the end zone. I just sort of reach backwards. But then after a few seconds the pile came.
MOSS: I immediately just rushed the field. I jumped on the nearest person I could see.
WESTERKAMP: It was Sam Burtch. He was the first one on the dog pile. He said “I love you.”
Somewhere in the pile, offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles is struggling to breathe and dealing with claustrophobia. In the locker room, he was breathing into a paper bag, trying to calm down.
NEBRASKA OT JEREMIAH SIRLES: It was the most emotional thing. I think of all the games last year, this probably, I mean, a Hail Mary, last second, at home…I couldn’t control my emotions. Usually, I’m not like that. But, I mean, it all kind of hit me. Senior year, you’ve got two more home games, I mean, it’s all coming to a close and that’ll be remembered in this place forever.
KELLOGG: Insane. People are still asking me if I know what I did, and I still don’t know. I’ll have to look at it on all of your news reports tonight to see what happened.
Through it all, Westerkamp hangs on to the game ball and makes it over to his parents near the sidelines. Meanwhile Taylor Martinez seeks out Kellogg, his fellow quarterback and roommate.
KELLOGG: He said “Great play, that was amazing.” And I said “Yeah, I guess it was.”