A Tale of Two Halves
LINCOLN — On the field, Nebraska didn’t seal its 30-27 win over Wisconsin until the Badgers’ final offensive play. Facing a 4th-and-1 on its own 49-yard line with less than 90 seconds left, Wisconsin went where it had gone most of the night – Montee Ball. And when Alonzo Whaley burst through the line, stopping Ball short of the line and forcing a fumble, recovered by Harvey Jackson, the Nebraska defense went where it had gone most of the second half – off the field. Job well done.
In the locker room, however, the Nebraska staff and players felt a win was imminent much sooner. It came on a 12-play, 93-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter. Through the game’s first 20 minutes, however, Nebraska hadn’t looked like a Big Ten title contender, much less a tentative favorite.
Nebraska fumbled its way to a 14-0 deficit before the sun had fully set over Memorial Stadium. The lead grew to 20-3 with just over eight minutes remaining in the second quarter before the Nebraska offense, billed as one of the best in the Big Ten, got rolling.
Then came the drive. Twelve plays, 93-yards and a touchdown at a moment when Nebraska absolutely needed something to go right. Taylor Martinez went 7-for-7, tossing the final three yards to Rex Burkhead for the touchdown.
Technically, that made it a 10-point game. Emotionally, for Nebraska, that made it a game. Martinez called it the “turning point.” So did almost every other player on the offensive side of the ball. The tide had turned.
Enough, in fact, that Nebraska could withstand another Martinez fumble deep in Huskers territory. This one was stripped by defensive end David Gilbert and led to another Wisconsin touchdown. Nebraska was down 17-points for the second time on the night but what followed was some of the most dominant football of the Bo Pelini era on both sides of the ball.
From that last Wisconsin touchdown forward, Nebraska held the Badgers to 66 total yards and forced four consecutive three-and-outs spanning the third and fourth quarters. Wisconsin’s touted run game had 12 yards in the second half and 56 on the day on 41 carries. Heisman hopeful Ball averaged just 2.8 yards on 32 carries.
“It was a team effort stopping that run game,” Pelini said following the game. “That football team knows how to run the football. Trust me.”
While the defense was forcing three-and-outs and feeding off the frenzied Memorial Stadium crowd, the offense calmly cut up the Wisconsin defense with a mix of pass and run.
After falling behind 27-10, the Huskers put up 303 yards of offense, 197 of it on the ground. Martinez ran for a 38-yard touchdown and passed for another during the 17-point third quarter. A Brett Maher field goal gave Nebraska its first lead of the game with 5:19 remaining. It was the only lead the Huskers would need.
But it required one more stop. Back to the 4th-and-1 play. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the Huskers didn’t dial up anything special. In fact, it was the opposite.
“We called a base defense because we didn’t want to give up a play action shot,” Papuchis said. “We played a little bit more of a conservative call and sometimes it comes down to getting off blocks and making plays.”
Jackson’s fumble recovery sealed the second largest comeback in school history, trailing only the 21-point comeback against Ohio State last year. But it was a fairly nondescript second quarter drive that started it.
“We made it hard on ourselves,” Pelini said. “We didn’t play our best football, we didn’t play nearly as well as we are capable of playing.
“But we got a ‘W,’ and we stayed the course as a football team. Our guys showed the character, the toughness, the perseverance to overcome not playing our best football.”