Little Frankie Solich was open!
It was Sept. 26, 1964, when Nebraska — in the midst of a 16-game win streak that put Bob Devaney's program on the map — traveled to Minnesota for the national TV game of the week.
The Gophers led 21-12 midway through the fourth quarter when Fred Duda sparked a rally. The junior quarterback faked a handoff to Solich, rolled out and found his 156-pound fullback sprinting down field. Touchdown.
21-19, 7:31 left.
The Husker defense forced a quick punt and Duda got it back at the Minnesota 44. Three plays later, Nebraska had fourth-and-13. Duda hit Freeman White for 14. The drive continued to the 18-yard line, where Duda fired again for Kent McCloughan.
The ball split a Gopher's hands and skipped off his helmet. McCloughan lunged for the deflection, grabbed it and bulled over the goal line for the game-winner.
“We practiced that a lot,” Duda says, tongue-in-cheek.
Duda, a 68-year-old investment adviser in Chicago, is an odd name to see in your sports page nearly half a century after his last Husker game. Reached by phone Thursday, he hadn't thought of the Minnesota rally in years.
But there's a reason for the flashback.
The Huskers have played 596 football games since McCloughan's catch. They have won by 10 touchdowns. They have won by one point. But never had they rallied from a two-score deficit with less than eight minutes left.
Until Oct. 20, when Duda was in the north end zone at Northwestern to see Taylor Martinez lead two touchdown drives.
Two weeks later, Duda was in his living room a few miles away, watching Martinez do it again at Michigan State, this time with just six seconds to spare.
Duda prefers to watch blowouts from the back of his chair.
“Games like this, I'm sitting on the edge,” Duda siad.
This is the life of Husker fans everywhere in 2012, a season that has quickly become improbable, not because of where Nebraska stands — 7-2 and leading the Legends Division — but because of how it got there.
If, three weeks from now, NU breaks its 13-year conference championship drought and reaches the Rose Bowl, we won't remember 2012 for signature wins and All-America players.
It will be the Year of the Comeback. A campaign in which the Huskers did something they hadn't done in 48 years — then waited a whole two weeks to do it again!
Look at it another way.
From September 1964 to October 2012, Nebraska faced a two-score deficit in the last eight minutes of a game 51 times.
That list includes the '84 Orange Bowl, when the Huskers nearly rallied from 31-17 down; the '02 Texas game, when Jammal Lord played his best game before throwing an interception in the end zone; the '08 Virginia Tech game, Bo Pelini's first disappointment.
Fifty-one games, zero wins. Now, suddenly, they're 2 for 2.
That doesn't even count Wisconsin, when NU rallied from 17 down in the second half. Yes, Nebraska accomplished a similar feat against Ohio State last year, but that 21-point rally was so clearly influenced by the Joe Bauserman Effect, it almost deserves an asterisk.
There will be no asterisks attached to these comebacks, especially Michigan State, one of the best single drives in school history.
Martinez's touchdown pass to Jamal Turner conjured images of Scott Frost to Matt Davison in 1997 at Missouri. Or Zac Taylor to Maurice Purify at Texas A&M in 2006.
Had Matt Barkley or A.J. McCarron executed the drive against one of the nation's best defenses, it would've been surprising enough. But consider the actors and their track records:
Ľ This was a head coach who — entering the Wisconsin game — had a dismal record in close games. Pelini was 5-10 in games decided by seven points or less. He's 3-0 since.
Ľ This was an offense notorious for melting down in clutch moments away from home.
In 2010, Nebraska had 19 second-half drives away from Memorial Stadium in which it took possession trailing or tied. It managed a whopping three field goals — and gave up a safety.
In '11, the offense had 15 drives in those circumstances. One touchdown, one field goal. At UCLA, nine drives produced two field goals and a safety.
Cumulatively, that's 43 drives — the equivalent of three full games. Net production: 21 points.
Ľ This was a quarterback whose passing was openly mocked by the nation's most prominent TV analysts. A Wisconsin defensive end compared Martinez's throwing motion to “skipping rocks.”
Yet at Northwestern, Martinez completed 10 of his last 11 passes, including two touchdowns.
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At Michigan State, he threw a perfect ball to Quincy Enunwa on the sideline, converted a fourth-and-10 to Kyler Reed over the middle, threw a precise touch pass to Kenny Bell (which drew a pass interference), then hit Turner with pinpoint accuracy in the corner of the end zone.
Ľ Don't forget the defense. Nebraska collapsed last year against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina. It gave up 653 yards at UCLA and 63 points at Ohio State.
But on Wisconsin's final five possessions, the Badgers didn't score. Northwestern didn't score on its final three drives. Same for Michigan State.
Put it all together and it's hard to describe.
“They're exciting,” Duda says. “I'm pretty sure the coaches wish they didn't have to come back all the time. But they have a lot of character.”
I suppose a depth chart stocked with veterans is partly responsible — these Huskers are no strangers to adversity. Nebraska's newfound comfort with passing and playing up-tempo is a factor — eight minutes feels like more time than it used to. The volatility of this team surely has something to do with it — you can't rally if you don't first fall behind.
But in the Year of the Comeback, perhaps it's best not to demand answers. Better to join Fred Duda on the edge of a seat.
Just don't fall off.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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