LINCOLN, Neb. — Though he threw the pass and spent the first few seconds of Jeremy Ebert's 81-yard scoring dash watching the speedy receiver take off, Kain Colter still arrived second at the congratulatory celebration in the far end zone.

That this accomplishment might rank, oh, 11th on Colter's list of impressive moments should summarize his Saturday neatly.

This being Northwestern in 2011, little has been neat. But when Charles Brown hugged Nebraska's last-ditch onside kick and fell to the Memorial Stadium turf, the Wildcats had their signature moment.


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Northwestern's 28-25 triumph over No. 9 Nebraska in its first visit here in 37 years marked the program's first over a top-10 opponent since the Wildcats beat No. 8 Iowa on Nov. 7, 2009.

It came despite Dan Persa suffering a left shoulder injury that sidelined him for the second half and thanks to a revived defense that limited Nebraska to a season-low 122 rushing yards.

NU (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) boosted its bowl chances with the upset. To become eligible, the Wildcats have to win two of their next three and will be favored to beat Rice and Minnesota before closing with Michigan State.

"It's a huge upset for everybody else," Colter said matter-of-factly. "But we came into this game believing we were going to win."

Colter showed the way, rushing for two second-half touchdowns and throwing for that third to Ebert, who posted a career-high 148 receiving yards. Colter's 57 yards rushing, 57 yards receiving and 115 yards passing backed up his strong words.

"I've been singing his praises all year, probably more so than I have any other player, just because he deserves it," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "When the ball is in his hands, usually good things happen."

They started on the first possession of the second half.

Persa had taken snaps for Northwestern's final two first-half possessions despite getting slammed onto his left shoulder. But when Persa didn't take the field after halftime, Colter capped a six-play, 59-yard drive with an acrobatic and athletic 3-yard run.

Nebraska (7-2, 3-2) pulled within 14-10 when Taylor Martinez found Tim Marlowe for a 15-yard scoring strike after Austin Cassidy intercepted backup Trevor Siemian in the end zone and returned it to midfield. But Colter hit Ebert on the second-longest pass play in school history in the fourth.

"Kain saw the safety roll down," Ebert said. "I had man-to-man coverage. Kain threw a great ball."

Nebraska pulled within 21-18 with 8 minutes, 55 seconds left on a 1-yard touchdown by Rex Burkhead. Given the number of second-half collapses this season, Colter and Northwestern faced gut-check time.

The Wildcats then rushed 13 straight plays, including a huge 4th-and-1 conversion from Colter, culminating with Colter's 1-yard touchdown.

"There's no question we lost momentum," Fitzgerald said of the fourth-down call. "I just felt it was time to go for the win."

Now, NU has momentum, particularly with an improved defense that forced two turnovers.

"We started joking with them a little, 'Keep them under 53 and we'll have a chance,' " Colter said. "They took it personally and proved us wrong. They probably played their best game."

As did Colter.

kcjohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @kcjhoop