>> Video Below: Bo Pelini and select players at the postgame press conference
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LINCOLN — Nebraska's start couldn't have been much worse. Its finish couldn't have been more forceful. And the comeback felt quite familiar.
After the Huskers spotted No. 23 Wisconsin a 17-point third quarter lead, they openly talked of replicating their school-record comeback over Ohio State last year. There, NU trailed 27-6 and won 34-27. Here, the Badgers' cushion was 27-10.
“We knew we had done it before,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said. “And we could do it again. Pretty much everyone was chattering about it.”
Nebraska backed up the sideline talk, scoring the final 20 points in a 30-27 win, riding a wave of momentum created by Martinez's playmaking skills, a run-stuffing front seven and towel-waving Memorial Stadium crowd. The No. 20 Huskers tied the second-biggest comeback in school history.
“It's a 60-minute game,” coach Bo Pelini said. “There's momentum swings. There's always turning points. And you gotta stay the course. You gotta play every play and try and outlast it. It's a fistfight.”
And the Huskers (4-1 overall and 1-0 in the Big Ten) struck the dramatic knockout blow. Leading 30-27 with less than 90 seconds left, NU had to stop Wisconsin and running back Montee Ball on a fourth-and-1 at midfield. UW dialed up what linebacker Will Compton thought was a “double lead” play. That's all the Badgers' much-vaunted bulk against the Huskers' oft-maligned front seven.
What Compton didn't know: Wisconsin had actually called a quarterback bootleg. Ball said after the game he was never supposed to get the rock. But he did, and here was the game, all of its twists and turns, boiled down to a few feet and a lot of big bodies fighting for space. The test of toughness Nebraska craved after last year's 48-17 blowout loss in Madison. Pelini thought his team was ready for it, having “answered the physical challenge all night.”
Ball barely got started before Husker linebacker Alonzo Whaley knifed in and punched the ball out. Safety Harvey Jackson recovered. The 85,962 fans screamed.
“It was nuts after that,” Compton said of the crowd's reaction.
Nebraska built to this crescendo with a startlingly good 25 minutes of football. The Badgers (3-2, 0-1) turned a Martinez fumble into a 13-yard touchdown drive and a 27-10 lead with 10:29 left in the third quarter. From there, NU outgained Wisconsin 287-81, ran 21 more plays and controlled whole chunks of the game clock.
Martinez — who finished with 288 total yards and three total touchdowns — started it with a 20-yard pass to Kenny Bell on third down. One play later, he scrambled 38 yards for a touchdown, weaving through Badger defenders and leaping to the goal line.
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“We dropped back in pass coverage and he scrambled for some big plays,” Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor said. “We knew he could run, obviously. It was just a matter of time before they tried to use him more, and they used him well tonight.”
Wisconsin went three-and-out on its next drive. Martinez, shrugging off trash talk from Badger defensive end David Gilbert, answered again, hitting Jamal Turner for 27 yards and later Kyler Reed for a 10-yard touchdown to cut UW's lead to 27-24. He led two more drives that ended in Brett Maher 38- and 41-yard field goals. NU had success throwing short and running wide sweeps against Wisconsin's sturdy-but-tiring defense.
Meanwhile, the Badgers' offense — fueled mostly by long passes from quarterback Joel Stave to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis — went dormant. NU's defensive line began to move the line of scrimmage, with linebackers Compton, Whaley and Sean Fisher — who combined for 26 tackles and six tackles for loss — sweeping around fullbacks and tight ends to make plays.
“Our guys up front played their butts off,” Pelini said. “Our front seven did a lot of good things.”
Ball ran 15 times for 31 yards in the second half. Stave completed just 3 of 9 passes for 51 yards and was flagged for intentional grounding. After being slammed on his shoulder, Stave left the game and Danny O'Brien finished.
Stave landed all the blows in the first half, hitting Abbrederis for a 54-yard pass to set up the team's first touchdown and a pretty 29-yard pass down the sideline for a second-quarter score. Ball found success cutting back into holes left by overpursuing NU linebackers. And Wisconsin kept the Huskers on their heels with a medley of pre-snap formation switches and tight end motions. It was as if the Badgers had taken UCLA's offensive plan and tried to execute it with their bigger, beefier personnel.
Nebraska's offense couldn't get out of the starting gates. Martinez fumbled the game's opening snap; NU punted. On the Huskers' next drive, Rex Burkhead fumbled on the first play. The Badgers recovered and punched that in for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
“We ran four plays and they're up 14-0,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
“We made it hard on ourselves,” Pelini said. “We made a lot of mistakes in that game. We didn't play our best football.”
When Stave's touchdown pass to Abbrederis gave UW a 20-3 lead in the second quarter, Martinez and the offense awakened, going on a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown drive. Martinez completed all seven passes on the march, including a 3-yard score to Burkhead. NU trailed 20-10 at halftime and stopped Wisconsin to open the second half.
That's when Gilbert, coming on an end rush, forced Martinez to fumble just as he was throwing. The Badgers recovered and scored. Cue the comeback.
It's one that Pelini would rather Nebraska not have to make again. He wore a postgame facial expression of relief more than joy. Pelini knew, in one day's time, he'd go about fixing all the mistakes NU had made — six fumbles (two lost), 70 yards in penalties, the breakdowns in downfield coverage — in preparation for his Ohio State homecoming next Saturday.
“We did some things that were out of character for us in that first half,” Pelini said. “It could have cost us. It didn't. Down the road, it will.”
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>> Video: Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
>> Video: Taylor Martinez at the postgame press conference:
>> Video: Rex Burkhead at the postgame press conference:
>> Video: Will Compton at the postgame press conference:
>> Video: Postgame analysis:
>> Video: See the alternate uniforms close up at the NU-Wisconsin pregame warmups: