LINCOLN — A pair of unlikely heroes guided Nebraska to a walk-off win in storybook fashion Saturday against Northwestern.
Lane McCallum booted a 24-yard field goal as time expired to give the Cornhuskers a 13-10 victory at Memorial Stadium. It was the second field goal of the day for the walk-on sophomore place-kicker/safety from Norfolk, who had missed his previous attempt when he hit the right upright from 29 yards out with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter and the score tied 10-10.
After an interception and 11-yard return by cornerback Lamar Jackson with one minute remaining, McCallum’s game-winning kick was set up by backup quarterback Noah Vedral. The sophomore from (Wahoo) Bishop Neumann completed a 32-yard pass to wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and then rushed for gains of 8 and 5 yards, moving Nebraska to the Northwestern 7-yard line with three seconds to play.
What was going through McCallum’s mind in the seconds after he made pressure-packed kick?
“Praise God — I didn’t think that thing was going in when it left my foot,” McCallum said. “I looked at it and it was really low and I was like, ‘Oh crud.’ So give that one to the Man upstairs, for sure. I didn’t know if that was going to get blocked or not.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost used an interesting strategy to try and calm McCallum prior to his game-winning attempt.
“I called him a name and said, ‘You’ll make it,’” Frost said. “Sometimes levity is better.
“I’m 44 years old (and) I could’ve jumped as high as he kicked that, but it got through. I think we were due a break somewhere.”
Asked exactly what Frost told him, McCallum smiled and declined to answer.
“I can’t say that one,” McCallum said. “He definitely relaxed me, though.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald attempted to ice McCallum, calling three consecutive timeouts. However, it didn’t seem to bother McCallum, who said Nebraska’s kickers are routinely subjected to “clutch periods” in practices where they kick with their teammates yelling at them and attempting to distract them from close range.
“Honestly, I think I got more and more confident as the timeouts kept coming,” McCallum said. “I think it (was) just regrouping, settling down and letting the heart rate slow down. It helped me.”
Nebraska (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) has struggled with place-kicking throughout the season as starter Barret Pickering has been sidelined with an injury and backup Dylan Jorgensen has also dealt with injury issues. The Huskers entered the game just 2 of 7 on field-goal attempts for the season.
Considering Nebraska’s kicking woes, Frost said it was probably inevitable that the game would come down to a field-goal attempt against Northwestern (1-4, 0-3).
“Of course it would happen that way, right?” Frost said. “It’s making me old before my time, some of these things. Not having a healthy scholarship kicker certainly hasn’t been ideal for us.
“We’ve been searching for a guy that we can use. Lane has been the best, so I’m glad we picked him with the way this turned out.”
After McCallum’s third-quarter miss, Frost said he considered other options, but ultimately decided to stick with McCallum.
“It’s hard to put a kid in that has never done it in a game,” Frost said. “Lane was the obvious choice and punched it through.”
Vedral said he had full confidence in McCallum. While McCallum didn’t necessarily plan on kicking when he transferred to Nebraska from Air Force, Vedral said he had seen McCallum come through on the basketball court many times before when the two were in middle school and high school.
“I trust Lane,” Vedral said. “I’ve played basketball with him for a very long time, so I know he’s got that clutch factor in him. I wasn’t too worried.”
Vedral was clutch in his own right, entering the game with 12:44 remaining after starting quarterback Adrian Martinez appeared to suffer a knee injury. The UCF transfer completed 2 of 5 pass attempts for 41 yards and rushed seven times for 33 yards.
“Noah has been biding his time in our program with the coaching staff for a long time,” Frost said. “It was great to see him get his chance — I wish it wasn’t under the circumstances it was under — but he made the most of it.
“He made a couple of plays when we needed him to. We’ll see where we are going into next week. Hopefully, it’s Adrian. If it isn’t, then Noah will be ready.”
Vedral said Frost and Nebraska’s coaching staff do a great job of helping him stay focused and prepare each week, even though he hasn’t been the starter.
“I did my best this week to be locked in and know the scouting report — all that stuff,” Vedral said. “As the game goes, sometimes it’s an advantage as a backup. I get to watch that stuff without having to make the tough decisions that Adrian did.
“He played a hell of a game, so I’ve got to say thank you to him for keeping us in that game and giving us a chance.”
Frost said Vedral knows Nebraska’s offense well — arguably better than anyone else on the team because he has worked with the coaching staff the longest. Vedral joined Frost’s program at UCF coming out of high school before following Frost to Lincoln.
Vedral’s knowledge of the system was showcased on his 32-yard pass to Robinson. Frost said the play wasn’t even on the “call sheet” for the Northwestern game.
“It’s one of our familiar concepts that the guys know like the back of their hands,” Vedral said. “So we felt comfortable calling it and I know Coach Frost knows that, too.”
Vedral said it was “cool” that two Nebraska natives could team up to help their home-state Huskers pull out a victory in difficult circumstances. Not only was NU playing without Martinez, but starting wide receiver JD Spielman was also sidelined with an injury in the second half.
“From here, raised here (and) weirdly enough, we’re both transfers... but it was super exciting,” Vedral said. “It’s kind of one of those things that it doesn’t really hit you who it is or what it means until after the fact.”
Kicking a game-winning field goal in Memorial Stadium certainly wasn’t anything McCallum said he envisioned when he made the decision to transfer to Nebraska.
“It’s definitely been a crazy journey,” McCallum said. “God throws you in every situation that He wants you to (be in). It’s His plan, not yours and I think that’s exactly what showed in these past couple months.”