Flame cannons shot in the dark of each corner of Tom Osborne Field. The announced 86,804 jammed into Memorial Stadium rallied their support by the decibel. Junior linebacker Luke Reimer fed off it.
Tie game to start the fourth quarter. The mental road block that became a gap and grew to a chasm over consistent one-score heartache. Seemingly endless years of bad luck and the butt of jokes.
But with 3rd and 3 came a new beginning. The clean slate interim head coach Mickey Joseph pledged the Huskers.
“Last year we lost every single close game we had, then Northwestern as well,” Reimer said afterwards. “It seemed like a mountain we just couldn’t climb.”
Edge rusher Ochaun Mathis knocked down the 3rd down pass. Four plays later Trey Palmer ran under a deep heave from Casey Thompson to jolt Nebraska’s inconsistent offense to life and seize a lead they wouldn’t give up. Not this time.
The defense, playing its first game under coordinator Bill Busch, shut down Indiana’s ensuing drive and the offense responded with a commanding 6-minute touchdown drive to put the game out of reach. Nebraska beat Indiana, 35-21, in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1. It was the Huskers’ first win over a FBS opponent since Northwestern came to Lincoln to open Big Ten play on Oct. 2, 2021.
Three hundred and sixty-four days ago Nebraska won its last Big Ten game. By 11 p.m. Saturday night the Huskers were tied atop the Big Ten West standings at 1-1.
“But today was a huge morale booster where we could win those close games,” Reimer said. “And now it’s just stacking wins.”
Nebraska’s new-era defense allowed just 14 points and 290 total yards while limiting Indiana to 2 of 15 on third-down conversions in Busch’s first game at the helm. His move allowed Joey Connors to step in as special teams coordinator. On Saturday, the Huskers blocked and returned a punt for a touchdown for the first time in 13 years.
It was a truly memorable win for a team mired in forgetful endings. Although, it also provided plenty of head-scratching moments after scripted success.
For the fifth time in their last six games, the Huskers scored on their first drive. Thompson tossed consecutive 34-yard passes, the first to Palmer down the middle and the second to Oliver Martin in the end zone. Martin’s catch eerily similar to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda’s opening catch against Northwestern in Ireland.
After that came mistakes and missed opportunities. And penalties. So many penalties. Nebraska was called for 12 infractions tallying 111 yards — nine of them for 85 yards in the first half. They came sporadically, but especially after Chubba Purdy subbed in for the first drive of the second quarter and fumbled into the end zone. Indiana’s Myles Jackson scooped the loose ball up between the K and E in the north end zone to tie it at 7.
Thompson’s immediate return didn’t ignite success but the defense continued to hold its own. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, special teams made a play it hadn’t in over a decade. Chris Kolarevic broke into the backfield and blocked James Evans’s punt. Freshman Malcolm Hartzog, making his first career start, scooped the loose ball and ran 30 yards to a score and deafening roar. It was Nebraska’s first blocked punt returned for a touchdown since Justin Blatchford’s score against Baylor in 2009.
“That was big, we talked about that all week,” Joseph said. “And it was executed to the best we could execute it.”
The offense fed off that momentum, while overcoming an intentional grounding penalty, with an eight-play drive that ended with Jaquez Yant muscling his way in from the 2.
It couldn’t do much after that.
Amid a flurry of penalties and bizarre situations in the final 6 minutes of the second quarter came two Indiana scoring drives. Bazelak found Emery Simmons for a 13-yard strike and, on the following drive, Shaun Shivers fought his way into the end zone. Just like that, Nebraska’s two-score lead once again evaporated.
Nebraska’s first four drives of the second half accumulated a collective 12 yards. That includes two different drives that ended with negative yardage and a one-play drive that ended with Thompson’s pass intercepted at the Indiana 1.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska defense rallied itself to ground its fast-paced opponent. Luke Reimer lowered his shoulder on a hit and plucked the ball away from the receiver for his first interception of the season. (Thompson’s pick came on the next play.) The defense then forced consecutive 3-and-outs.
“Never out of the fight, chop wood, carry water,” team captain Garrett Nelson said afterwards. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks as a team.”
That’s when it happened. In a tie game on 3rd and long with the outcome up in the air, Thompson planted his back foot and heaved. The leathered spiraling oblong, and the game, landed in Palmer’s lap with no one fast enough to catch him. Nebraska’s leading receiver ran the rest of the way to give the Huskers a 28-21 lead a minute into the fourth quarter.
“I do that practice, it wasn’t nothing too big,” Palmer said afterwards. “My number got called and I made the play.”
The Huskers got the ball back 2 minutes later and melted clock. Anthony Grant churned forward for seven of 12 plays. Thompson found Palmer for two first-down catches on third downs. The battered quarterback and his sore shoulder ran in from 1 yard out to cap a drive that pried 6 minutes, 35 seconds off the clock.
Once again with confidence, Nebraska’s defense allowed nothing. Indiana managed 5 total yards on 12 plays and held the ball for less than 4 minutes in the fourth quarter.
“We finished with the ball in our hands on offense, which was a positive, and we’d been overdue to finish the game with a victory and take the knee,” Thompson said. “It was good for us to do that today.”
The clock hadn’t hit 20 seconds before the players embraced the moment and the crowd let out its final holler, waiting until the final score truly became final — anxieties of all the fourth-quarter ties that only ever became losses. The Huskers surrounded Joseph in the locker room and started the celebration. Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts joined the team and handed the ceremonial game ball to the interim head coach.
Nebraska won. Tied atop the Big Ten West and keepers of their own destiny, the Huskers went home winners.