The question coming into Saturday’s game wasn’t whether Nebraska was better than Wisconsin. Everyone — Husker fans, Badger fans, oddsmakers, pundits — seemed to agree that was the case.
The question was how Nebraska would handle being the better team. Playing at home. Playing at night. Playing on homecoming. Playing as well as anyone in a conference that wasn’t playing well. Everything seemed to favor Nebraska and in the past few years that hasn’t really favored Nebraska at all.
So if you looked beyond the trash talk and revenge rhetoric of the past week, what you would have found is a game where Nebraska was competing against itself as much as the Badgers. And for the first 20 minutes of the game Saturday night, Nebraska was soundly beating Nebraska.
There was the ominous fumble on the first play of the game and the three-and-out it forced. 7-0. There was Rex Burkhead fumbling on the next offensive play. 14-0. There was the indefensible roughing the punter penalty. 20-3. The Huskers salvaged some momentum with a 92-yard drive right before the half, then gave it right back when Taylor Martinez was stripped by arch-nemesis David Gilbert. 27-10.
Then something strange happened. Nebraska stopped beating itself and started beating Wisconsin. Over the game’s final 24 minutes, Nebraska beat Wisconsin completely. The Huskers had 303 total yards, the Badgers 65. Nebraska scored 20 points, Wisconsin zero. The black-hatted defense looked like Blackshirts for the first time this season and the offense was as multiple and dangerous as they looked to be against lesser competition this season.
It was strange because we hadn’t seen this from the Huskers before. Yes, this 17-point comeback was only the second-largest in school history. Nebraska rallied from 21-down against Ohio State just last year but this one was different.
While the Badgers, with a struggling offense and a solid if not spectacular defense, had their fair share of questions marks coming into the game, they were hardly the wounded animal that Ohio State was last season. Wisconsin didn’t lose its starting quarterback. Wisconsin had its Heisman candidate at running back. Wisconsin didn’t turn it over to ignite or aid the comeback, Wisconsin turned it over after Alonzo Whaley already had Montee Ball in his grasp for the fourth down stop that sealed the win.
Here’s how defensive coordinator John Papuchis described his reaction to that play: “Total and utter relief. It’s not joy until later. At that time it’s just relief that we survived.”
That’s what last year’s Ohio State comeback was — relief. Nebraska kept its season alive by beating the Buckeyes last year and avoiding an 0-2 Big Ten start.
The win against Wisconsin was about belief. This one was about beating the demons that have kept Nebraska from a conference title for the past three years. Fumbles, penalties, mistakes, mental breakdowns. They’ve plagued the Huskers in the past. They plagued Nebraska early on Saturday. There was an eerie, once-bitten feeling in Memorial Stadium in the first half.
But Nebraska overcame that too.
On Saturday, the Huskers beat Wisconsin but they also beat recent history. The latter might end up being more important than the former. The best teams are almost always competing against themselves. That’s what Alabama’s doing right now. It’s what Nebraska did in the mid-1990s. When you’re good enough, perfection is the competition.
This edition of the Huskers isn’t there yet. Not even close. Six fumbles — two lost — is alarming. Three touchdowns essentially given away through a combination of turnovers and penalties. The question coming in was could Nebraska avoid beating itself.
This week the Huskers overcame beating themselves. Like Bo Pelini says, it’s a process and Saturday represented progress.