What began as pure disaster for Nebraska ended up being one of the most impressive comebacks of head coach Bo Pelini's five seasons in Lincoln, as the Huskers overcame a 17-point deficit in the second half to pull off a 30-27 win over Wisconsin.
After a week full of talk about getting revenge for last season's 48-17 blowout in Madison, Nebraska (4-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) had to get out of its own way before finally out-muscling the Badgers in the third and fourth quarters.
Turnovers and poor defense allowed Wisconsin to jump out to a 27-10 lead, but some key second half adjustments on both sides of the ball helped shift the entire complexion of the game. The Huskers ended up out-scoring UW 20-0 to close out the game and pull out the second-biggest comeback in school history.
"We made it hard on ourselves, but as a football team, we made a lot of mistakes in that game," 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. I'm proud of the group in there, but that's just one game. We'll enjoy it tonight and get back to work tomorrow."
You couldn't have scripted a worse start for Nebraska than how things played out in the first quarter. After a quick three-and-out to open the game by the Huskers, Wisconsin marched right down the field, aided by a 54-yard catch by Jared Abberderis, and punched in a 3-yard touchdown run by Montee Ball to take the early lead.
On NU's ensuing possession, senior running back Rex Burkhead fumbled on the first play and gave the Badgers the ball back at the Nebraska 23-yard line. That marked the first forced turnover of the season for Wisconsin's defense.
On a fourth down from the 1, Ball barreled his way into the end zone for his second score of the day and put the Badgers up 14-0 with 7:20 still remaining in the first quarter.
Nebraska finally showed some life on the following kickoff when Ameer Abdullah broke it 83 yards down the right sideline to start the drive from the UW 13. Unfortunately for the Huskers, they failed to capitalize on the opportunity and had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Brett Maher.
The Huskers fumbled the ball three times on their first six plays of the night, recovering two.
Maher had a chance to cut the deficit even more a couple possessions later, but sailed a 51-yard attempt wide left. Wisconsin quickly made the Huskers pay, putting together an 11-play drive capped by a 29-yard touchdown pass to Abberderis with 11:50 to go in the half.
The touchdown never would have happened had it not been for a costly roughing the kicker penalty on Stanley Jean-Baptiste on a punt that extended UW's drive. Badger kicker Jack Russell botched the extra point, however, leaving the score 20-3.
Nebraska's offense finally got going a few minutes later, with quarterback Taylor Martinez engineering one of the more impressive drives of the season. Martinez completed 7-of-7 passes for 53 yards and running for 32 more to lead the Huskers 93 yards on 12 plays, ending it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Burkhead with 3:11 left before halftime.
"I think that is the way we should normally play," said Martinez, who ended the night 17-of-29 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns along with a game-high 107 yards and score on the ground.
"I think we just started and couldn't get a rhythm going. Their defense played great. We put them in a tough situations. We knew if they couldn't get any stops that we wouldn't be stopped. We just scored some points."
The Huskers nearly handed Wisconsin even more points in the final minutes of the half when safety Daimion Stafford committed a blatant pass interference penalty instead of playing the ball on a third-down pass. Luckily for NU, Russell once again missed wide left on a 41-yard field goal attempt with just 29 seconds remaining.
"It was right before halftime when we scored and then we realized we only had one half left and that was our chance to come back," defensive end Eric Martin said. "I told the offense you just have to score, and we will hold them on defense. That what we did, we held them and they weren't scoring anymore points. It was just us working as a team and being confident."
Just as the first half started, things got away from Nebraska right away to open the third quarter. On the Huskers' first drive of the half, Martinez was stripped by defensive end David Gilbert and the Badgers recovered at the NU 13. Ball punched in his third rushing touchdown of the night four plays later from two yards out, putting Wisconsin up a commanding 27-10.
The good news for Nebraska was that from then on, it would get a bit of luck of its own. Facing a third-and-long deep in their own territory, Martinez connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard pass, and then 15 more yards were tacked on after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Bell by safety Michael Trotter.
Martinez then took things into his own hands on the next play, breaking away for a 38-yard touchdown run to cut it to 27-17 with just under nine minutes left in the third quarter.
The Huskers kept the momentum going with a big third-down stop and then a 10-play, 75-yard scoring march with Martinez hitting tight end Kyler Reed on a 10-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-24 with 3:47 still left in the third.
With the defense continuing to shut down the Badgers' offense, Nebraska tied it up at 27-27 on its ensuing possession with a 38-yard field goal by Maher, evening the score for the first time since the 11-minute mark in the first quarter.
"We did what we had to do," Pelini said. "I'm concerned with some of the things we gave up in the passing game, especially in some situations where we were right there to make some plays. We had some tough calls as far as some interference things and that kind of thing. I thought we did some good things. Contrary to what you guys think, I haven't forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run."
By the time the third quarter finally came to a close, the Huskers outscored Wisconsin 17-7 and out-gained it 179-57 in the quarter.
Nebraska took its first lead of the night a drive later, as Maher knocked in a 41-yard field goal to put the Huskers up 30-27 with 9:41 remaining in the game.
Wisconsin suffered a huge blow late in the fourth quarter when Stave was forced to leave the game with an injury, leaving back up Danny O'Brien to try and lead the comeback. The Badgers had the ball with a little less than three minutes left, but Nebraska's defense came up with the play of the day when it mattered the most.
After O'Brien hit Jordan Fredrick on a 10-yard pass on third-and-11, Ball was stuffed on a fourth-down run by linebacker Alonzo Whaley, who forced a fumble and safety Harvey Jackson scooped it up to seal the victory.
"You know what, it's a 60-minute game," Pelini said. "There are none. There are momentum swings, there are always turning points in football games. You've got to stay the course, 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. I thought our guys did that and we proved that today.
"No one panicked, everyone stayed together, kept making adjustments. It's a team game. It's the ultimate team game, ultimate team sport. Our football team did enough to win the football game, and I'm proud of them."
Nebraska will head out to take on Ohio State next week in Columbus, Ohio, where kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CT.