Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the No. 9 team in the country Saturday night. The second half featured four lead changes and a tie, and once again the Huskers found themselves in a one-possession game late.
After a scoreless first half, Nebraska opened things up a bit more in the second and put the game in Adrian Martinez’s hands. He delivered with 232 yards of offense and four total touchdowns in the final 30 minutes.
However, just like every close game we’ve seen thus far this season, Nebraska found a way to lose the game instead of win it.
This week’s Play of the Game is, unfortunately, Adrian Martinez’s fumble that set up Michigan’s game-winning field goal.
The defense kept Nebraska in the game throughout the first half when the offense couldn’t gain any traction. In the second half, the offense picked up the slack and rallied to take a 22-19 lead late in the third quarter.
The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth, then Michigan kicked a field goal to tie it up at 29-all with three minutes to play. After a touchback, Nebraska got the ball at the 25 with all three timeouts remaining. Martinez had orchestrated touchdown drives on four of Nebraska’s last five drives.
The stage was set, as ESPN’s Mina Kimes laid out on Twitter.
Adrian Martinez legacy drive let’s do this
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) October 10, 2021
The drive got off to a good start as Martinez hit Levi Falck for a 7-yard gain. Martinez handed the ball off to Rahmir Johnson on second down for a run up the middle, ginning 2 yards. That set up a third-and-1, and this time Martinez ran it himself.
Nebraska lined up in 11 personnel with two receivers to the right and one to the left. He motioned the back, Johnson, into the left flat to take another defender out of the box. Tight end Travis Vokolek lined up in the backfield then came across the formation to block on the left side as Martinez caught the snap and approached the line of scrimmage, looking for a hole.
Left tackle Turner Corcoran took on Michigan’s star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97), but Hutchinson shoved him aside while Vokolek ran right by the other defender on the edge. Martinez saw the Wolverines defenders there and cut it back inside where left guard Nouredin Nouili had driven Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith (58) back past the line to gain.
Martinez picked up the yardage needed for the first down, but ran into the back of Nouili and slid into Smith’s arms while safety Brad Hawkins scraped over the top and defensive end Christopher Hinton spun off Cam Jurgens’ block to get in on the play. Despite three Michigan defenders hanging onto him, Martinez kept his legs churning, fighting for extra yardage and moving ever so slightly forward. Just as the official was preparing to blow his whistle to signal forward progress had stopped, the ball popped free.
“The goal, obviously, on a short yardage run play is to try to get the first down,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to stand up here and make excuses for myself. I can’t be careless with the football. I thought the play was over. I was standing as I am standing right now, and I thought it was done. But regardless of that fact, I feel a lot of responsibility and can’t make plays like that hurt our team.”
Hawkins, who had ripped the ball out, picked it up before any Husker could get to it and ran it back 19 yards to the Nebraska 18-yard line. Oliver Martin tackled him with 1:45 to go.
Michigan ran the ball three times with Nebraska burning a timeout after each one. The final run went for a loss of 7, setting up the Wolverines with a 39-yard field goal attempt for the lead with 1:28 to play. Jake Moody knocked it through to give the Wolverines the lead.
“I feel terrible for him and for the team, because gosh, they did so many things well tonight,” Coach Scott Frost said. “That was as much fun as I have ever had coaching a football game, with the fans, the way they were in the stadium and the way we responded, and they are a damn good football team, I give them a lot of credit. So are we, and I told the boys before the game that usually those games come down to one or two plays.
“Another thing I really love is we took the field on that drive and I think everybody thought we are going to win this game. It wasn’t ‘What’s going to go wrong? Let’s make sure they don’t have time to go win.’ We were going to go win the game, and we got a first down to start it. Adrian is a warrior, and he is an unbelievable player. So I hurt for him, but I told the boys, ‘Don’t hang your heads.’ I don’t know if his momentum was stopped or not, but we can’t expect to get those breaks, we have to make them.”
A touchback set them up again at the 25 with one last chance as the clock read 1:24.
After a great throw from Martinez to Samori Touré advanced the Huskers to midfield, the drive stalled out. Martinez got flushed from the pocket and threw the ball away on first down. On second, the pressure got to him again and he missed an open Martin in the middle of the field. On third down, he hit Johnson out of the backfield on a check down and a Michigan defender tackled him at the line of scrimmage. On fourth-and-10, Martinez took a shot to Touré up the right sideline, but he got busted as he let the ball go and the corner was stride for stride with Touré as the ball fell incomplete.
“Great route and catch by Samori,” Frost said. “I thought we had a chance to hit a shallow first down, and they brought pressure on second. We were really close to hitting the screen on third; one more step out there quicker by a guard I think it creases. And on fourth down, they brought zero blitz and we tried to take a shot to one of our best players. They were pressuring us a lot tonight, which I don’t blame them. But they’ve been doing it all year, and we tried to protect Adrian a little bit, too. I thought we got the drive started real well and was still really confident at that point, we just needed one more play to keep the chains going.”
The fumble was the 30th of Martinez’s career, and the 17th he’s lost. For all the good that Martinez had done to put them in a position to win the game, he couldn’t avoid the back-breaking mistake that has come to characterize Nebraska in close games this season.
Against Oklahoma, it was Connor Culp and the kicking unit plus the pass protection late. Against Michigan State, it was Daniel Cerni and the punting unit. Against Michigan, it was Martinez. For all the progress the team has made — and there’s clearly plenty of it — Nebraska still hasn’t found a way to get over the hump in close games against good teams.
That’s why Adrian Martinez’s fourth-quarter fumble is this week’s Play of the Game.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.