Strange things happen in football under the cold, dishwater skies of November. Teams are banged up, fighting to protect promising seasons or salvage disappointing ones. The excitement of early-autumn gives way to the work of near-winter.
And that’s what Nebraska’s 28-24 win over Michigan State in Spartan Stadium on Saturday was – work.
When you stretch young men to their limits, strange things happen. So many, in fact, in this last game that it’s nearly impossible to count them all but here is at least a partial list:
1) On an odds-defying drive to open the second quarter, Nebraska has back-to-back false starts on third-and-long, yet picks up first downs on both of them thanks to a roughing the passer penalty and a 33-yard completion to Kenny Bell. On the next third down Bell, who is having an all-Big Ten type season, drops his first ball of the season on a likely touchdown. Then…
2) Brett Maher, the guy who’s won more Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors than anyone else, misses a 30-yard field goal. It’s a chip shot, really, and could have given Nebraska 10-7 lead. Instead, it’s the first miss inside 35-yards of his career.
3) That miss is also the first time the Huskers entered the red zone and came away with no points this season.
4) Nebraska’s had its share of coverage problems on deep balls this season, but on the Spartans second touchdown of the day, the Huskers cover things pretty well. No matter, Andrew Maxwell – a 55 percent passer on the season and 33 percent passer on the day — puts his 46-yard pass to Tony Lippett between three Nebraska defenders and Michigan State has 14 points midway through the second quarter. The Spartans hadn’t scored more than 16 in four of their previous five games.
5) The Huskers were failing in the one area where they’d been better than every other team in the country. Nebraska came in giving up a first down in third-and-long situations less than 10 percent of the time. Michigan State was 3-for-6 at one point in the third quarter and had a 10-point lead to show for it.
6) Nebraska finished minus-two in turnovers on the day, yet won. Prior to this game, the Huskers were just 3-13 when losing the turnover battle by two or more.
7) The vaunted Michigan State rush defense, allowing just 91.22 yards per game coming in, gave up 313 to Nebraska. It was the most the Spartans had allowed in seven years.
8) Taylor Martinez’s potentially back-breaking fourth quarter fumble. He recovered it once, then fumbled again, only to have tackle Jeremiah Sirles fall on it for a 15-yard gain and a first down.
The one thing that wasn’t strange? The hot-cold, all-or-nothing, love it or hate it, performance of Nebraska’s starting quarterback. The junior became Nebraska’s all-time leader in career yards, surpassing Eric Crouch, with his 365 yard, four touchdown performance on Saturday. At times – the 71-yard and 35-yard touchdown runs, the perfectly placed touchdown pass – it was clear the Huskers would never win without him. At others – trying to scoop up his own fumble, three ugly interceptions – it seemed apparent the Huskers wouldn’t win the game with him.
But that’s been the case for two-plus seasons now. What seems to be different this time around is that the Huskers are learning to live within the mystery of Martinez. Three second half comebacks say they are. Being in control of their own destiny says they are. Bo Pelini says they are, though he’d probably enjoy making it a little easier on himself.
“We need to become a smarter football team,” Pelini said. “We’ve got to stop doing things that hurt us (and) kind of put us in the situation where we’ve got to come back and win there at the end.”
That would be the easy way to do it, but it’s unlikely anything is going to come easily for the Huskers the rest of the way. It’s November, after all. But there might not be a team better equipped to handle the ups-and-downs of fighting for a conference title at this point.
As evidence, some quotes when the Huskers had 80 seconds and 80 yards to go for a win:
Pelini on his confidence level with Martinez: “Really high. Obviously, I want him to play perfect. That’s what we’re striving for, but I do have tremendous confidence that he’s going to … He’s a competitor and I’m glad he’s our quarterback, I really am.”
Jamal Turner on Nebraska’s attitude on first-and-goal with 17 seconds left: “We knew we were going to score.”
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck on the value of tempo in that situation: “It’s the beautiful thing about being a no-huddle fast-paced offense. It doesn’t really affect us. That situation doesn’t make me nervous.”
Kenny Bell on Martinez’s presence in the huddle: “Nothing unusual. It was just, ‘We’re going to go win this football game.’ When Taylor says something like that, you believe him. He said, ‘They will not stop us. We’re going to go win this football game.’ When you hear that, coming from your leader, it makes you want to just play that much harder.”
That part’s not strange. Martinez has always displayed the utmost confidence in himself. This season, for maybe the first time in his career however, it’s paid off more often than not. In this case, the magnificence overcame the mishaps.
On Saturday it earned Martinez a spot atop the Huskers all-time record book. It also earned him a kiss on the cheek from P.J. Smith right in the middle of his post-game interviews.
Stretch young men to their limits and strange things happen.