>> Video Below: NU coach Bo Pelini and select players discuss the MSU game
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EAST LANSING, Mich. — As Nebraska coach Bo Pelini jogged away from the cold, gray, stunned scene at Spartan Stadium Saturday night, he glanced at a member of NU's radio broadcast team, shook his head and smiled.
There was a lot in that smile, quick as it was. Pleasure. Pride. Pluck.
With penalties, turnovers and missed tackles, the Heartburn Huskers dug another double-digit hole to a Big Ten team. And against most odds and the league's best, self-proclaimed toughest defense, they clawed right out.
Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24.
“I feel like I've aged about 20 years,” Pelini said in his press conference.
The coach's “win out” pledge extends to another week. NU stays in the driver's seat of the Legends Division. Quarterback Taylor Martinez gets his third fourth-quarter comeback of the year. And sophomore wide receiver Jamal Turner catches his first career touchdown — and game-winner — with six seconds left.
“I'm still in la-la land,” Turner said. “I can't believe I won the game.”
“This is what champions do,” said Martinez, who became NU's career-record holder in total offense Saturday. “Just keep fighting.”
Yes, No. 20 Nebraska had its share of fight. A little fortune, too. A crowd of 73,522 certainly argued that with a chorus of boos after the final gun.
The Spartans took a 24-14 lead one minute into the fourth quarter and thought they sealed the win when cornerback Darqueze Dennard intercepted a Martinez pass at the Michigan State 4 and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. But an MSU personal foul several yards away from the ball nullified the score. Instead of scoring, the Spartans got the ball at their own 10.
“I guess you can't block on defense,” Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi quipped.
From that flag forward, Nebraska outgained the Spartans 159-26 and outscored them 14-0.
NU's defense made three stops. Martinez — who finished with 205 rushing yards — cut the lead to 24-21 with a 35-yard touchdown run. He then engineered an 80-yard, 74-second drive full of desperation, drama and coaches moving chess pieces.
The intrigue started with a fourth-and-10 at the Nebraska 42. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called his first timeout to set up a defense.
“Everybody was looking around the huddle saying, 'We got them beat, they're tired,'” Turner said. “Just like last year, we wore them down. We said 'Let's hit them in the mouth, let's end the game.' And that's what we did.”
Dantonio's timeout gave Husker coordinator Tim Beck time to further explain to his offense that MSU's safeties were playing deep, so a pass in the middle of the zone to tight end Kyler Reed would work best.
“They told me it was probably coming to me,” Reed said. “Get open. Make a play.” He did, catching a pass from Martinez and gaining 38 yards before he went out of bounds at the MSU 20.
Beck asked Pelini if he wanted to play it safe, kick the field goal and head to overtime.
“Let's go win the football game,” Pelini answered.
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Three plays later, Martinez lofted a pass to Kenny Bell, running a fade route right in front of Nebraska's band. Dennard, in coverage, appeared to cup his arm around Bell's shoulder pad. The band in red called for pass interference. An official tossed his flag. And MSU's sideline exploded in anger.
“I just couldn't believe some of the things that happened,” said Spartan running back Le'Veon Bell, who later posted on Twitter that officials “won the game tonight.” He deleted the tweet shortly after.
That call put NU at the Michigan State 5. Martinez and Turner took advantage.
Beck called the same post corner play he did last weekend vs. Michigan, when Turner lost the ball in the Memorial Stadium lights. Portable lights at Spartan Stadium were actually in Turner's field of view on the catch. But he secured the grab this time.
“I'm really thankful,” said Turner, who recently declined to talk to the media after games until he caught his first touchdown.
“It took until six seconds to get over the hump,” Pelini said.
For three quarters, the game appeared headed for a different result. Sound familiar? It should. Nebraska (7-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten) gave up the same big plays to a so-so offense. It had the same costly turnovers: Martinez threw three interceptions, two of which set up Spartan touchdowns.
NU's defense couldn't slow Bell (188 rushing yards) and helped quarterback Andrew Maxwell and Michigan State's methodical throwing game with 45 yards in pass interference penalties. Maxwell threw a heave into triple Husker coverage — and came out with a 46-yard touchdown to Tony Lippett. MSU (5-5 and 2-4) possessed the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the third quarter, grinding out first downs.
“We made some bad, bad mistakes in that game,” Pelini said of his defense. “Some horrible mistakes.”
“Wrong gap here and there,” safety P.J. Smith said. “Miscommunication here and there.”
The Huskers' offense again vacillated between explosion and implosion. Martinez broke 59- and 71-yard runs — the latter a touchdown — to help NU forge a 14-all tie at halftime. Nebraska ran for 313 yards, the most Michigan State's given up since 2005. NU had 473 total yards for the game.
But Nebraska had minus-4 yards in the third quarter. Martinez took two bad sacks. Kicker Brett Maher missed a 30-yard first-half field goal attempt right after Kenny Bell dropped a sure touchdown on a slant pattern. And Nebraska saved its biggest mistake for Martinez's final interception, when the quarterback saw a “zero blitz” and checked into a quick throw to tight end Ben Cotton, who was blanketed by Dennard.
“I can't believe the corner came off and covered Ben,” Martinez said.
Martinez only hit 5 of 12 passes down the stretch. He completed just three on the final drive. But Pelini said the junior “put the team on his back.” Smith walked up to Martinez in his press conference and kissed him on the cheek. And defensive end Eric Martin picked up Martinez while he was still on the field.
“Sometimes he gets on my nerves,” Martin yelled to reporters. “But I love him!”
It's a statement Pelini might make of his team. He said he wished the Huskers didn't make it so hard on themselves. He'd like to see them clean up penalties, the mental miscues, execution errors.
But if Nebraska did, it might overshadow what Pelini seems to like most about his team. It's what keeps him in the hunt for a Big Ten title, even if it turns his hair gray.
“These kids want it bad,” Pelini said. “We don't always play as smart as we need to play. But one thing you can't question about the guys behind me in that locker room is their heart. These kids play with heart.
“It means a lot to them. It means something. I think it shows in how they play. It's a cohesive group. You go to everybody in that locker room — coaches, trainers, players — and there's a great bond.”
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>> Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the MSU game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the MSU game:
>> Video: NU's Jamal Turner after the MSU game:
>> Video: NU-MSU game highlights: