SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Ryan Nassib had a day he'll want to remember a long time — except for the final score.
Utilizing a new, up-tempo offense that had been kept under wraps through preseason training camp, Nassib was nearly flawless in the second half Saturday against Northwestern. He completed 28 of 39 passes for 311 yards, four for touchdowns, only to watch the Wildcats score in the final minute and pull out a 42-41 victory.
"We just started clicking," Nassib said. "Unfortunately, it was a little too late."
Nassib finished 44 of 65 for 470 yards, all school records but little solace to the fifth-year senior after the team's sixth straight loss dating to last season.
"We've got a lot to take from it," Nassib said. "We've got a lot to learn from the game. We did some good things, did some tough things."
Subbing for banged-up starter Kain Colter in the second half, Trevor Siemian hit Demetrius Fields with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left to spoil a furious rally by the Orange, who had trailed 35-13 midway through the third quarter.
Syracuse has now lost six in a row dating to last season with a date looming next week against top-ranked Southern California at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
"There are a lot of good things out there, and that's what we are going to focus on," Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone said. "We feel that we're going to be a good football team."
Siemian, 8 of 11 for 78 yards in the game, was 6 of 7 for 62 yards on the winning drive, including a 25-yarder to Fields. He also drew a critical penalty when he was hit out of bounds by Keon Lyn after a 9-yard gain on a third-and-15 play from the Syracuse 27.
"Pretty good in the two-minute," said Siemian, who guided the Wildcats 75 yards on 10 plays in a decisive drive that took just 1:56. "Obviously, we want to answer and just take it one play at a time. I don't know if it was a penalty. I was just doing my job."
Fields made the winning catch on the next play at the out-of-bounds line, streaking to the left corner of the end zone.
"I didn't know if my foot was in," said Fields, who had eight catches for 83 yards. "I just trusted my quarterback to get the ball to me."
Colter was 14 of 21 for 135 yards passing and ran for another 40 yards on 14 carries.
It was the season opener for both teams and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has yet to lose one in seven tries.
"I liked the way we responded to the adversity that we created for ourselves," Fitzgerald said. "We have to do a better job of keeping focus and keeping the big things small. We felt with where we were that Trevor gave us a great opportunity to win."
Nassib had thrown a pretty 20-yard TD to Christopher Clark in the left corner of the end zone with 2:40 left in the game for the go-ahead score, and Prince-Tyson Gulley ran in the two-point conversion to give the Orange a 41-35 lead.
Nassib also hit Marcus Sales for a 7-yard touchdown and combined with Jeremiah Kobena on scores of 50 and 7 yards, the latter with 6:42 left in the fourth to move Syracuse within 35-33.
Syracuse was still in it at halftime despite the heroics of Northwestern star Venric Mark, who scored twice and accumulated 203 all-purpose yards in the first half.
Mark, who rushed for 82 yards, returned three kickoffs for 49 yards, giving him a school-record 1,514. Ricky Edwards held the previous mark of 1,499, set from 1979-83.
The loss continued a downward spiral for the Orange, who posted a 5-2 mark to start last season, then lost their last five games to miss a chance to play in a bowl game for the second straight year.
Syracuse was undone by big plays much like last season, when the Orange allowed 13 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more and six scoring runs of at least 20 yards. They were unable to stop Mark in the first half, and it cost them dearly.
Mark returned a punt 82 yards for a score in the final minute of the first quarter, racing untouched the entire way as he weaved across the field. His 53-yard punt return set up a 14-yard TD pass from Colter to Christian Jones late in the second, giving Northwestern a 21-13 halftime lead.
In between, Mark caught a scoring pass from Colter, easily beating the defender in the left corner of the end zone. That play was set up by a Syracuse turnover. Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 44 yards to the Orange 21. Sales had tried to make the catch of Nassib's low throw and it caromed up to Ariguzo's waiting hands.
Syracuse was victimized on a short screen pass behind the line of scrimmage on the third play of the third quarter, and it proved critical. Nassib's throw to Jerome Smith in the left flat was low and behind him and bounced harmlessly away as players on both sides pulled up, thinking the play was over. Ariguzo then picked up the ball, looked around and ran 33 yards into the end zone in a stunning turn.
Mark's 32-yard run set up Colter's 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Wildcats what appeared to be a commanding lead midway through the third.
"We'll take it and use it as motivation," Syracuse strong safety Shamarko Thomas said. "We have big-time playmakers. We got speed and size. We just need to get it all together."