EVANSTON, Ill. - Just when it looked like the wheels on Nebraska's season had officially fallen off, the Huskers managed to pull together in a way that could end up defining the season.
Trailing by 12 with less than nine minutes left in the game, Nebraska (5-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) mounted a furious rally to escape with a 29-28 victory over Northwestern (6-2, 1-2) that was all but sealed with a missed field goal by the Wildcats in the final minute.
The win tied for the largest fourth quarter in school history (Missouri in 2009, Colorado in 1966).
"What do you say about that one?" head coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm proud of our team. The resiliency and the fight that they showed, I thought it was a good team win. I'm frustrated with getting ourselves in that situation in the first place. I'm frustrated with some of the things that put us in that situation, but we overcame a lot today. There are a lot of guys that did a lot of good things and made some plays, but trust me, there's a lot of things that need fixed from that game. That was a heck of a football game."
The wild finish was set up by an at-times disastrous performance by the Huskers through the first three quarters.
All of the same mental mistakes that have plagued Nebraska on the road all season continued to linger in the first half, as turnovers and penalties kept the Huskers from getting anything going offensively.
After marching down the field and settling for a 29-yard field goal by Brett Maher on its opening possession, NU missed out on a golden opportunity when Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark mishandled a bouncing punt and Ben Cotton recovered at the Wildcat 11-yard line. However, Daimion Stafford was flagged for a personal foul during the play, which negated the fumble and forced a re-kick.
Another special teams miscue a couple drives later ended up costing the Huskers even more, as Ameer Abdullah muffed a punt at the 14 and Northwestern jumped on the ball to continue its drive. Three plays later, quarterback Trevor Siemian hit Dan Vitale over the middle for a 10-yard touchdown to put the Wildcats up 7-3 with 1:35 left in the first quarter.
While Nebraska's defense actually played some of its best football of the season through the first two quarters, the offense and special teams continued to struggle. In fact, the Huskers gave up a second turnover on a muffed punt later in the second quarter, this time by Kenny Bell at the Wildcat 37.
On NU's next drive, quarterback Taylor Martinez connected with tight end Kyler Reed on a 20-yard pass down to the Northwestern 22, but Reed ended up fumbling the ball and giving it back to the Wildcats.
"We just weren't executing real well," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "At times we were moving the ball and making some plays, and times we weren't. We were hurting ourselves. We'd give up a sack or we wouldn't hang onto the ball or they'd blitz or something. It was just a variety of different things, I think, that took place throughout the game."
Finally, Nebraska was able to stay out of its own way and reached the end zone with 8:25 remaining in the second quarter. Martinez found Bell over the middle on a long pass, and Bell used some fancy open-field moves to work his way in for a touchdown and put the Huskers back up 10-7.
That momentum wouldn't last very long, however. Following a 16-yard punt by Maher that put the ball at the 50, Northwestern drove down the field and scored on a nice 26-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to Tony Jones in the back corner of the end zone to take a 14-10 lead into halftime.
All together, the Huskers lost three fumbles, committed three costly penalties and were just 1-of-7 on third down conversions in the first half.
"We're killing ourselves," Martinez said. "We're the ones that are stopping ourselves. If we don't stop ourselves, there's no one in the country that could beat us."
After a stellar first half, Nebraska's defense was gashed right out of the gates to open the third quarter when Mark took a simple run up the middle and went untouched for an 80-yard scoring run to push the lead to 21-10.
Nebraska was finally able to answer late in the third when Martinez ran in for a touchdown from three yards out, but a failed two-point conversion option run left the score at 21-16 with 1:09 remaining in the quarter.
Later in the fourth, the Huskers had another one of those frustrating drives full of mental mistakes, including a 9-yard loss on a sack followed by two straight penalties that set up a desperation 3rd-and-24 play, which came up well short.
"It was like, we can't get out of our own way," Pelini said. "We make some plays, and then just ridiculous, careless penalties in that situation."
On Northwestern's ensuing possession, the Wildcats grinded out an 11-play, 52-yard drive that took 3:52 and ended with a fourth-and-1 conversion run by Colter and then a 3-yard touchdown run by Mike Trumpy. That made it 28-16 with 8:31 left in the game.
Just when it looked like the game was in hand, though, Nebraska responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive of its own and scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass to Taariq Allen with just under six minutes to go.
The defense came up with a big three-and-out to give the offense the ball back at its own 24 with just over four minutes remaining. On the first play of the drive, Martinez hit Quincy Enunwa on a 31-yard strike over the middle, and then found Jamal Turner over the middle on a 25-yard pass to set up first-and-goal at the 7.
On the very next play, Martinez hit tight end Ben Cotton in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:08 left on the clock. Because of the missed two-point conversion earlier in the game, though, the Huskers had to go for two again and failed to convert on an incomplete pass to Turner.
"As soon as we got the touchdown to make it 29-28, we had people saying, 'We're winning this game,'" safety P.J. Smith said. "We knew we were going to win it. We just all had confidence. You could tell on the sideline from every guy. You just saw it in our eyes. The offense went down there and handled their business, and then we said 'Hey guys, it's up to us.' We got a three-and-out, offense got the ball back. Go score.
"I went to the sideline and said, 'Hey, our season's on the line here. We win this game, we're still in control of our own destiny.' Guys stepped up to the challenge."
Leading 29-28, the game came down to Nebraska's defense, as Northwestern started its final drive at its own 25 with all three timeouts.
Siemian came up with a big 24-yard pass to Rashad Lawrence down to the NU 39 with 1:30 to go, and then dodged a huge bullet when cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and linebacker Will Compton both dropped interceptions that could have won the game.
With 1:16 left, the Wildcats lined up to attempt a 53-yard field goal attempt by Jeff Budzien. The kick sailed wide right, and the Huskers were able to run out the rest of the clock to pull out a victory that kept their season goals alive.
Nebraska will look to build off Saturday's win next week when it hosts Michigan in another crucial Big Ten Legends Division bout that will be nationally televised on primetime.
"We've got to use this momentum and we've got to keep working," Pelini said. "I told our guys, it's just one. The second half of the year we talked about starting a new season, and we got on here on the road. Now we've got to keep going."