DALLAS -- Tommy Tuberville knew better. The last two onside kicks he called this season were returned for touchdowns. The most recent came in this very stadium.
The thing is, he just couldn't help himself.
The Wildcats rallied to get within a touchdown twice in the fourth quarter and were driving for a tie or win when the Red Raiders intercepted a heave on the final play, preserving a 45-38 victory and allowing Tuberville to joke about his risky move.
"We wanted to make our guys work a little harder," Tuberville said. "I'd blame it on somebody else, but I called it."
The Red Raiders got off to a herky-jerky start under Tuberville, going 2-2, 3-3 and 4-4. But they won three of their last four. Tuberville also became just the fifth coach to win a bowl game at three schools, having also done it at Auburn and Ole Miss.
"It goes to the players, especially the seniors," he said. "There were times when they'd have liked to do something different, but they bought into it."
Northwestern (7-6) lost its eighth straight bowl game, extending a drought that dates to 1949. Coming close after being down by 22 points wasn't much solace because the Wildcats were close the last two postseasons, dropping both in overtime.
The consolation prize is coach Pat Fitzgerald is now counting on the guys who've endured three straight crushing bowl losses to come out hungry as seniors next fall. He challenged them with a fiery opening statement to his postgame news conference that's certain to be replayed all offseason.
"It's time they step up," he said. "If we want to win championships and we want to win these types of football games, that class has got to step up. They have to start making more plays. They have to start leading. They have to be the catalyst for us to get where we want to get. I challenged them to step up at the beginning of bowl prep. ... If we want to go where we want to go, it's time for that class -- their senior year -- to lead us there."
Freshmen quarterbacks Evan Watkins and Kain Colter led Northwestern's second-half rally with three straight touchdown drives and Jordan Mabin, part of that junior class, returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown with 5:37 left.
The Wildcats' defense kept the Red Raiders from running out the clock, but Watkins had only 24 seconds and no timeouts to go 75 yards. LaRon Moore caught the final throw, ending a game that featured 927 yards of total offense and 53 points scored in the second half.
The game was played at the Cotton Bowl, site of more bowl games than any stadium but the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The building was empty last bowl season because the namesake game moved to Cowboys Stadium.
Attendance was announced as 40,121, well under half of capacity; the actual crowd was several thousand less. Not even a game sponsored by a ticket-seller could lure folks other than fans of both schools to an 11 a.m. kickoff on a windy New Year's morning with temperatures in the 30s.
Potts was 43 of 56 for 369 yards. He ran twice for 19 yards, 13 coming when he threw a screen to Austin Zouzalik on the right side of the field and Zouzalik threw it back to him. Potts scored easily behind a convoy of blockers. The throwback was ruled a lateral, so it went down as a rushing play.
"The Cotton Bowl treats me pretty well," said Potts, who set a stadium passing record last time he was here.
Stephens' big play was the second-longest in a bowl game at this stadium, topped only by the 95-yarder in the 1954 Cotton Bowl that was awarded when Alabama's Tommy Lewis came off the bench to tackle Rice's Dickie Maegle. He ran 14 times for 128 yards and contributed to the dramatic finish by failing to get the first downs needed for Tech to run out the clock.
The Wildcats surprised the Red Raiders with an in-game switch to an option offense. They ran for 229 yards, their most since 2008. Colter led the way with 105 yards and two touchdowns.
"Throughout the week, our coaches had a great game plan to show Texas Tech some different looks," Colter said. "We kept them a little off guard."
Watkins, a redshirt freshman who took over when Dan Persa tore an Achilles' tendon in mid-November, was 10 of 21 for 76 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Northwestern safety Hunter Bates -- son of former Dallas Cowboys standout Bill Bates -- broke a leg and had to be carted off the field.
Northwestern scored its most points of the season against a Tech defense run by line coach Sam McElroy. He took over following the departure of coordinator James Willis earlier this week. His unit was solid in the first half, then gave up scores on the first four drives it faced in the second half.
For Northwestern's defense, giving up 45 points actually was an improvement. The Wildcats gave up 70 and 48 their two previous games.
"We just needed to find a way to get one more stop," Fitzgerald said, "and we didn't do that."