You really couldn’t draw up a more dramatic ending to this game.
Maybe it was the alternate uniforms, or the David Gilbert trash talk. Perhaps it was the retirement announcement of a Nebraska legend in Athletic Director Tom Osborne.
Whatever the reasons, the Huskers got it done… coming back to defeating Wisconsin 30-27.
It was the second largest comeback in school history and shades of last year’s comeback win against Ohio State.
Running backs coach Ron Brown summed it up best after the game: It wasn’t pretty, it was ugly… but we got the job done.
It was a disastrous start for the Huskers. Quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled on the very first play of the game, forcing a three-and-out. On the ensuing Wisconsin drive, the offensive line effectively opened holes and beat back the Blackshirts’ line and jumped ahead 7-0 on a Montee Ball 2-yard run.
Things would get worse for the Huskers. Running back Rex Burkhead would fumble the ball, turning it right back over to the Badgers. Ball would score again on a 1-yard run, making it 14-0 Badgers.
Trailing 14-3 to start the second quarter, mistakes would pile on: Stanley Jean-Baptiste would get a roughing the kicker penalty, leading to another Badger’s touchdown, and a Damion Stafford pass interference call, which lead to 11 more plays for Wisconsin.
But, Wisconsin kicker Jack Russell would kick the 41-yard field goal wide left.
That’s when things changed. Players and coaches said the build-up for the second half began in the locker room, with head coach Bo Pelini challenging his players.
Trailing 27-10 with 10:23 left in the third quarter on another touchdown run by Ball (2-yards), Nebraska capped off a six play drive on a Martinez 38-yard touchdown run. After a three-and-out by the Husker defense, Nebraska pulled to within three points on a Martinez 10-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Reed.
Both drives were masterfully drawn up by offensive coordinator Tim Beck, and executed by players “with heart”, according to coach Brown.
For the rest of the game, momentum was all Nebraska. Both sides of the ball, offensive and defensive lines dominated the second half.
Starting the fourth quarter and all tied up at 27 each (Brett Maher 38-yard field goal), Nebraska used 14 plays to jump ahead 30-27 behind another Maher field goal, this time from 41-yards out. On Wisconsin’s last two drives, the momentum swing completely came around full circle.
On a fourth and one on the Wisconsin 41-yard line and with just over a minute to go in the game, the Nebraska defensive line loaded the box and would attempt to stop the final threat.
They would, and not just get the stop… the Blackshirts would knock back Ball for a three yard loss and Alonzo Whaley would force the fumble. Harvey Jackson recovers the fumble, game over.
“We made it hard on ourselves”, Pelini says. “But we got the “W” and we stayed the course as a football team”.
Aside from the fumble on the first play from scrimmage, Martinez played lights out… both on the ground and in the air: 17-29 for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and 13 carries for 118 yards and the 38-yard touchdown run.
Martinez attributes the momentum swing on the 12 play, 95-yard drive in the third quarter.
“I think that is the way we should normally play… We knew if they couldn’t get any stops that we wouldn’t be stopped”.
Defensively, Will Compton seemed to get into the Wisconsin backfield often as the game progressed. Compton accounted for 10 tackle for the night, along with a sack and three tackles for losses. Whaley had a career-high nine tackles, two for losses and a sack.
As for what Pelini though was the turning point, he says there was none.
“You’ve got to play every play and try and outlast it. It’s a fist fight. It’s not one play or one series or one quarter, you’ve got to stay the course”.
Whatever it was: heart, uniforms, trash-talk, execution or the retirement of a legend… the drama played out to perfection, and a 1-0 start to Big Ten play.