There might not ever be a game that better embodies the career of junior quarterback Taylor Martinez than Nebraska's 28-24 comeback win over Michigan State on Saturday.
On one drive, the third-year starter looked like the dynamic playmaker who won the starting job as a redshirt freshman back in 2010. On the next, he was almost more of a liability than an asset.
When all was said and done, though, it was Martinez's poise when the game was on the line that kept the Huskers' Big Ten title hopes alive and well for another week. After mixing a stellar rushing day with three interceptions through the first three and a half quarters, Martinez was at his best in the final 15 minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Martinez accounted for 176 yards of total offense, with seven carries for 68 yards and a touchdown as well as 108 passing yards and the game-winning touchdown pass with just six seconds left on the clock.
"I can't even say enough about Taylor and how he played and how he finished that game," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He made some mistakes, but you know, everybody does. He put the team on his back at the end of that football game and made some plays. He did it with his arm today (and) with his legs. It shows character like everybody else. One thing about throwing a pick, you know everybody's going to throw interceptions now and then, but it's how you come back from those situations. I think it's not only Taylor, but the rest of this football team."
With his 375 yards of total offense on the day, Martinez passed Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch to become Nebraska's all-time career leader for total offense with 8,166, and he's now sixth on the school's single-season total offense list with 2,617 yards.
Martinez's 205 rushing yards in the win were the fourth-most ever by an NU quarterback, and he joins Jammal Lord as the only Husker quarterbacks to rush for more than 200 yards.
"That kid played like no one's business today and he ran hard and he ran fast," junior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. "I'm sure he's a little beat up, but he took it for the team. He played as hard as I've seen the guy play. When he needed to make throws, he made throws."
It certainly wasn't a perfect game for Martinez by any means, as his three picks led to 14 Michigan State points, and it would have been more if Darqueze Dennard's 96-yard interception return for a touchdown hadn't been negated by a penalty.
Because of the way his confidence never wavered throughout all the highs and the lows in the game, though, his teammates said Saturday only further cemented Martinez as one of the Huskers' undisputed leaders.
"It says a lot," senior linebacker Will Compton said. "Everybody knows that. Everybody knows that's what's going to be said, is his character, his resiliency and all that. If he would have lost that game, it would have been his head, especially in the media. But he won, and now it's going to be what we know he is, and that's a high character guy. He stuck in there. That's a tough kid. He took it by the horns and he got us a win."
When the game clock finally struck zeros, the first person to hug Martinez was his longtime friend and senior defensive end Eric Martin.
"He ran to me because we're boys," Martin said. "We go way back. I'm probably his best friend on the team. It was an epic moment in his life and in mine. I'm glad he was able to come through for us. I give him so much credit. Sometimes he's a headache, but other times like this he comes through for us.
"He smiled. I usually don't see him smile much, but he smiled at me. Then the cameras came and he stopped smiling because he's camera shy."
- Robin Washut
Turner's first touchdown catch a big one
Sophomore wide receiver Jamal Turner sure picked an impressive situation to haul in the first touchdown catch of his college career.
With the game on the line in the final seconds, Turner beat his man on a route to the back left corner of the end zone, and Martinez delivered a perfect pass to him for the eventual game-winning score with just six seconds remaining.
For a player full of potential who had been waiting a year and a half for his breakout day, Turner's catch was a moment that couldn't have come soon enough.
"I can't believe that we won the game like that," Turner said. "I've been dreaming about this my whole life. I want to thank God for letting me go out and for putting me in this position, to glorify him. It was the same play we called last week and I lost the ball in the lights and missed the touchdown, but (offensive coordinator Tim Beck) came back and called it this week and I was able to score the winning touchdown.
"On the last drive we were saying 'We've got them beat. They're tired.' Just like last year, we wore them down. Let's hit them in the mouth, let's end the game, and that's what we did."
Receivers coach Rich Fisher said he never had a doubt that Turner, who had just one catch for 19 yards on the day up to that point, was capable of making a play like that. Fisher said the touchdown was a perfect example of just how far Turner has come since he first broke onto the scene with his stellar performance in the 2011 spring game.
"I felt real comfortable when the play was called that he was going to go make a play, and he did," Fisher said. "He's grown up a lot. For him to have that catch in that situation just kind of speaks volumes for that whole group, the way they battle and the way they prepare, the way they keep fighting."
Turner's teammates couldn't have been more proud of him either. With him being the latest young NU receiver to step up and make a huge play this season, the future of the position only continues to look brighter and brighter.
"I can't explain to you how proud I am of Jamal," sophomore wide out Kenny Bell said. "You talk about a receiving core and how far we've come. Taariq Allen got a game winning catch for his first touchdown ever. Jamal Turner just caught a game-winning touchdown for his first touchdown ever. You talk about how we've grown as a receiving core. I'm really proud of how far the whole core has come and how tough they played tonight. I'm just proud of those guys. It got physical and it got ugly and we just gritted our teeth and kept going."
- Robin Washut
Defense knew it would come up with stop on MSU's final drive
When Quincy Enunwa was tackled short of the first-down marker on fourth and ten in the fourth quarter, the defense took the field with the knowledge that the game's outcome was now in their hands.
There was 3:12 left in the game and the Huskers had all three timeouts. The Blackshirts would have quickly get a stop to give Martinez and the offense another opportunity to win the game.
And there was no doubt about what Michigan State was going to do. This contest wouldn't be decided by schemes or creative play calls - it was going to be decided by which team won in the trenches.
"We knew if they got a couple first downs the game was over," Cameron Meredith said. "We knew that in order for them to stay in the game they would have to get a first down and they wouldn't take the chance of throwing the ball. They wanted to keep the clock running."
With 31 carries coming into the drive, Le'Veon Bell was going to be the ball carrier. His first two rushes went for five and eight yards, picking up a first down and significantly draining the time the NU offense would have to work with if they got the ball back.
But the NU defense stuffed Bell on his next three carries and forced a fourth-and-two situation. The Spartans punted, giving Martinez and company the opportunity they craved.
"He's their No. 1 guy," Meredith said. "They want to get the ball to him and they want to power it up the middle. I think their game plan was to give the ball to Bell and smash, smash, smash, then throw. Bell's a great back. He's probably the most physical we'll see from here on out."
The defense had taken a pounding from Bell and the forceful play of the MSU offensive line. On one second-half carry, Bell trucked P.J. Smith, a hit that secondary coach Terry Joseph said was harder than most of those you see on Sundays in the NFL.
But Smith and the defense kept peeling themselves off the turf and when the lights shone brightest, they came through.
"We knew that the offense was going to score and that the game was going to come down to us and our play," Smith said. "Everybody stepped up to the challenge."
- Dan Hoppen
Zone read results in big plays for Martinez
The Spartans did a good job defending the Nebraska running game for the parts of Saturday's game, but the Huskers were able to find success multiple times on the zone read, particularly when Martinez kept the ball. The junior had a season-high 205 yards on 17 carries and scored twice.
Twice it was a Martinez keeper on a zone read that produced a long run. On Nebraska's first-quarter touchdown drive, Martinez sucked the defense toward Ameer Abdullah with the fake before sprinting 59 yards down the right sideline where he was eventually caught at the four-yard line.
But Martinez would top that a quarter later when he received a crucial block from Bell on the outside and took off for a 71-yard score.
"They were playing man on the outside," Bell said. "The corner happened chase me when I went in to crack the safety. It happened that there was no one else out there to make the play. I got a two-fer."
The MSU defense was stuffing the Huskers' runs between the tackles, but NU was able to find some success when it attacked the edges. Martinez was the main beneficiary, as he had five carries that went for 13 yards or more.
"I just think they did a great job of stopping our inside run," Beck said. "We had a couple of things that we put in for this game that we got a lot of mileage out of."
While Martinez garnered the limelight with the long runs and a pair of scores, Abdullah did his part as well. The sophomore running back produced his third straight 100-yard game, rushing for 110 yards on 22 carries. He said he could see the Michigan State defenders begin to slow down at the end of the game as the Husker tempo did its damage.
"They're a good team and they play hard, but I felt like if we pushed the ball and played our tempo, they would roll over and that's what they did later in the game," Abdullah said. "That's the good thing about our offense - if teams key in on me, Taylor can go. If they're closing in on Taylor, I can get around the edge and make plays. That's a key part of our running game."
- Dan Hoppen
Pass interference calls play big role in game's outcome
The referees were among the busiest characters on the field Saturday night. Seventeen plays ended with a yellow flag on the ground and the teams combined to 172 yards on 18 penalties. Among the most common calls was pass interference, a penalty that burned Nebraska several times early in the game but ended up helping in a big way late.
With 17 seconds left, Michigan State was called for pass interference when Martinez lofted a pass to Bell in the end zone that the sophomore wasn't able to corral. It was a close play and the Spartan fans loudly voiced their displeasure, continuing to boo the call even after the contest had ended.
"It's tough to say," Bell said. "I thought it was good solid defense. I was just playing, so I didn't see the replay or what happened. I know that he was leaning on me quite a bit and he restricted my hand from being able to go up and catch the ball. I think that's what the referees saw."
Although that call went the Huskers' way, three earlier pass interference calls hurt them. Nebraska was flagged for pass interference twice on MSU's second drive, which resulted in the game's first score.
Then in the third quarter, Justin Blatchford's coverage drew a flag after Maxwell's pass fell incomplete on third and ten. While the Spartans didn't end up scoring, it kept a weary NU defense on the field to take more punishment from Bell and the physical MSU offensive line.
"You're getting so many under-throws and back-shoulder looks that it just puts the defensive back in a bad situation," Joseph said. "It's a hard call either way, but the defensive back is in a tough situation because, to define how he should defend it in every situation is almost impossible."
Joseph said that while avoiding pass interference calls is crucial, it's not something he emphasizes with his players.
"If you have the kid out there thinking about it that much, he won't get himself in position to even be close enough to make the play," Joseph said. "Although we don't promote the penalty, we can't spend too much time on it because there can be 1,000 different scenarios."
- Dan Hoppen
***The 313 rushing yards for Nebraska marked the most Michigan State had allowed in a game in seven years.
***Martinez's 205 rushing yards were the most by a player against the Spartans this season, bettering the 137 by Ohio State's Braxton Miller.
***Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said that while Nebraska didn't play nearly its best game on defense, the unit was able to step up and hold Michigan State to just one first down in the fourth quarter and get a crucial stop on the Spartans' final offensive possession.
"That's what I talked to our guys after the game that I was most proud about," Papuchis said. "We probably didn't play a very good game on defense. We know that. There's a lot of things we could correct. But when the chips were down and we were backed against the wall, we did respond well. We did get the ball back three times when we needed it back, knowing that that last play of the game if they convert a first down the game's over.
"Although it wasn't a great overall performance defensively, what I want to take away from it and what I want to spin to our guys is when we had to bow up, we certainly did, and the things that we made mistakes early in the game can be corrected, and they will be corrected if we do the things we need to do the rest of the month of November and into the first week of December."
***It may have been lost a bit amid all the last-second heroics, but Sirles' recovery of a Martinez fumble early in the fourth quarter with the Huskers trailing by 10 may have saved the team's Legends Division title hopes.
"I don't know, it kept our drive alive," Sirles said. "Anytime I'm recovering the ball it's not a good thing."
***The final touchdown pass to Turner was obviously the play of the game, but it was too much for Compton to watch.
"I didn't even watch. We got that P.I. and then the incomplete pass, and I told (senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley), I said a prayer. I was like, 'God, I'm not even going to say to help us win this game. Just keep everybody safe and it will be done.' I told Zo, 'Bro, just let me know what happens. I'm not even going to watch.' I just sat down, put my face on the bench and held my ears, and Zo just molested me when we got in. Oh my gosh."
***Brett Maher said the kicking unit was ready to run onto the field at any time at the end of the final drive - in fact, it's something the Huskers practice every week. With no time outs left, Maher knew he had to be ready should the opportunity arise.
***Spencer Long said that center Justin Jackson's shoulder slipped out on the final drive, causing him to miss a play. He was out for one play, but came back. "He's just a warrior," Long said.
***Tuner elected to play without a visor this week after losing a potential touchdown pass in the lights against Michigan.