EAST LANSING — Jamal Turner picked a great time for the first touchdown of his career.
The talented but at times inconsistent sophomore wide receiver hauled in a five-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to give Nebraska its first lead of the game with six seconds remaining. The play completed the Huskers second comeback from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit this season and gave Nebraska (7-2, 4-1) the 28-24 win over Michigan State(5-5, 2-4). It also kept the Huskers in control of its own fate in the Big Ten Leaders division.
“We didn’t play our best football out there today in a lot of respects, but it’s a tough place to come in and play,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I have a lot of respect for the football team we just beat, and we hung in there and our team showed a lot of character.”
Both teams likely came away feeling as though they didn’t play their best football in a game that came down to who made the last mistake. After slugging it out offensively in a first half marred by nine total penalties for 102 yards, the second half got even stranger.
For all it’s struggles this season, Michigan State has been a tough team to score on in the second half. The Spartans came into the game giving up an average of 4.67 points in the second halves of games this season and built a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard Le’Veon Bell touchdown run, his second of the day.
Nebraska drove quickly down the field, picking up a key conversion on third-and-19 when Martinez drilled a pass to Turner between two defenders. A personal foul penalty on Mylan Hicks — penalty number seven for the Spartans on the day — set Nebraska up at the 10-yard line. After throwing for five yards to Kenny Bell, Martinez threw his third interception on the day, and his second to Darqueze Dennard, at the Michigan State 4-yard line. Dennard picked his way through the Huskers on his way to an apparent game sealing 96-yard touchdown but a personal foul on the return –penalty number eight — nullified the score.
With 10:10 left in the game, and trailing by 10, the newly minted Blackshirts forced a crucial three-and-out. The Huskers went to the ground against the Big Ten’s best rush defense on the ensuing drive, going 58 yards in six plays capped by a weaving 35-yard Martinez touchdown run. It was Martinez’s second touchdown run of the game, after busting loose for a 71-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
The defense again answered the bell, forcing another three-and-out but the next Nebraska drive stalled at the Michigan State 40-yard line. With 2:36 remaining and all three timeouts, Nebraska needed another stop.
The Spartans turned to Bell, who would end up with 188 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the day, to close things out. He picked up one first down on back-to-back runs, but could only pick up seven yards on the next three and Michigan State was forced to punt again.
“We’re supposed to do that,” senior safety P.J. Smith said of holding the Spartans to only 31 yards in the fourth quarter. “It’s not a shocker. In the first three quarters, we killed ourselves. A miscommunication here or there, a missed (run) fit here or there. Once we were on the same page, everything was good.”
That left quarterback Taylor Martinez with 75-yards to go and 80 seconds to do it. Martinez found Quincy Enunwa for 22-yards to open the drive, but was stopped for no gain and threw back-to-back incompletions to leave the Huskers facing fourth-and-10 on their own 42-yard line. Martinez found tight end Kyler Reed for a 38-yard reception that took Nebraska into Michigan State territory.
Following back-to-back incompletions from the 20, Martinez threw a fade down the right sideline to Kenny Bell. Dennard was flagged for a controversial pass interference penalty — penalty number nine — that set Nebraska up with first-and-goal from 5-yard line.
“There are a lot of calls I would like to take a look at,” Spartans’ defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said following the game. “I got a look at (the pass interference call) up there; didn’t look that good from up there, but who am I to judge. It didn’t look good.”
With boos echoing through Spartans’ stadium and 17 seconds remaining Martinez tried unsuccessfully to find Reed in the back of the end zone on first down, setting up Turner’s game-winning touchdown catch on the next play. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck called for Turner to run an out route, the same play that looked like a sure touchdown against Michigan the week before when Turner lost the ball in the lights. This time he didn’t, snagging a perfectly thrown ball and getting a foot down inches from the sideline for the game winning score and his first touchdown in 20 career games.
“I’m still in, like, la-la land,” Turner said following the game. “I can’t believe I won the game. I’ve been dreaming about this moment my whole life.”
The touchdown pass capped a record-setting day for Martinez. The junior quarterback had a season-high 205 yards rushing and 160 yards passing, tallying four total touchdowns. The 365 yards of total offense gave Martinez 8,166 yards in his career, moving him past Eric Crouch to the top of Nebraska’s all-time total yards list.
“I think it’s awesome because so many great people came through Nebraska and it’s an honor to be able to pass them up,” Martinez said of setting the record. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and coaches. I’m honored.”
As for Pelini, the coach said the team needs to play smarter to avoid these sort of come-from-behind situations but games like these have revealed something important about the 2012 Huskers.
“I’ve been saying all along: This is a special group — great leadership and tremendous character,” he said. “These kids want it bad. We don’t always play as smart as we need to play, but one thing you can’t question about the guys in that locker room behind me is their heart.”