Nebraska coach Bo Pelini insists he doesn't want his team to ride the roller coaster. But in an exciting six-game winning streak that caught fire in the state — combined with three stunning losses that revealed the flaws of this senior-laden team — a roller coaster ride is precisely what happened in Nebraska's 2012 regular season.
Thrills. Spills. A season spent on the brink, as author John Feinstein once wrote. On the brink of early collapse after losses to UCLA and Ohio State. On the brink of the Rose Bowl, as NU's “win out” streak toward the end of the season captivated Husker fans. And finally, again, on the brink of depression, as Nebraska was run out of the Big Ten championship game by Wisconsin.
The Huskers won 10 games for the third time in five seasons. They also lost their third conference title game in four seasons. Their defense had moments of inspired dominance — and head-scratching errors. Their offense rolled over most defenses — but also created points for opponents with untimely turnovers. NU often touted its strong senior leadership, which showed in comeback wins. But it was in short supply in giant losses.
Nebraska was a team of opposing identities — sometimes within the same game. It made for a great ride, if not what coaches and players would define as a successful season.
Now that NU's arguably on the brink of playing its toughest opponent in years — Georgia — in the Capital One Bowl, we look back at the highs and lows of a memorable season. The Taylor Martinez highlight reel. The Bo Pelini moments that make him Bo. The exciting — and sometimes disappointing — road trips. Breakout stars. And, yes, a final autopsy of that 70-31 loss in Indy.
Five good game changers
Northwestern drops leave door open to Husker comeback: Nebraska might never have launched its six-game win streak to finish the regular season if not for some help at Northwestern. NU trailed 28-16 in the fourth quarter when quarterback Taylor Martinez easily could have been intercepted on back-to-back passes, including one that touched the hands of three Wildcat defenders. Martinez then went 10 for 11 from there, with a pair of touchdown passes providing the 29-28 winning margin.
Goal-line call vs. Penn State goes in Nebraska's favor: Some people called it payback for 1982 because this time Penn State was on the wrong end of the call. The Nittany Lions were about to retake the second-half lead against NU when tight end Matt Lehman lost the football right at the goal line in a bang-bang play that initially was ruled a fumble (Daimion Stafford recovered for NU in the end zone). Although at least one replay angle teased PSU with the thought that officials would overturn the call, the play stood — and NU clung to a 27-23 lead in the 32-23 victory.
Taylor Martinez gets fumble, keeps drive alive vs. Wisconsin: It took a fortunate bounce and quarterback Taylor Martinez being in the right place at the right time to sustain the Huskers' go-ahead drive in the Sept. 29 comeback against Wisconsin. Martinez was carrying out a fake after handing off to I-back Ameer Abdullah, above, on a zone read, and Abdullah's fumble 6 yards upfield happened just to the right of Martinez. The quarterback not only scooped it up but gained another 9 yards, allowing NU to convert a second-and-11 from its own 15. Eight plays later, Brett Maher kicked a 41-yard field goal to give the Huskers their 30-27 lead with 9:41 to play.
Michigan State penalty negates long interception return for TD: As good as Nebraska was getting at comebacks, raise your hand if you think the Huskers could have rallied from a 31-14 deficit at Michigan State in the final 10:42. Well? That would have been the challenge facing NU had a 96-yard interception return by Darqueze Dennard not been erased by a Spartan personal foul away from the ball. MSU instead started on its own 10 and immediately punted, and Nebraska went back to work in turning a 24-14 deficit into a 28-24 victory with two TDs in the final 7:02.
Nebraska pulls away after Michigan loses Denard Robinson: Michigan wasn't exactly marching up and down the field with him, but losing Robinson with almost four minutes left in the first half all but destroyed its chances against NU. Robinson left with the Wolverines having first-and-goal at the 8 and trailing just 7-3, and backup Russell Bellomy couldn't get them into the end zone then or any time later, going 3 for 16 with three interceptions as the Huskers pulled out a 23-9 win. Another question: Why was Michigan not prepared to use Devin Gardner, who had some effective performances down the stretch for the Wolverines?
Five bad game changers
Safety at UCLA turns tide in Bruins' favor: Take your pick of things that went wrong here. Nebraska calling a zone read from its own 5-yard line? Quarterback Taylor Martinez making the wrong read? The defense allowing enough ground again that UCLA was punting from the NU 42 and able to pin the Huskers so deep? Anyway, the two points not only broke a 27-27 tie with 8:44 left but swung the last of the momentum the Bruins' way in their 36-30 victory.
Rex Burkhead's season takes a hit on the third carry: All the promise, hype and momentum that I-back Rex Burkhead carried into his senior season were blindsided when his left knee twisted wrong on a 9-yard carry late in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi. Burkhead, coming off a 1,357-yard season and All-Big Ten honors, twice reinjured the knee and missed six games overall, and will go into the Capital One Bowl with just 74 carries and 535 yards.
Punt return at Ohio State only speeds up the rout: Nebraska had just allowed Ohio State to take a 42-31 lead midway through the third quarter when Taylor Martinez was sacked twice to force a Husker three-and-out. Perhaps the fatal blow followed. Brett Maher boomed a 50-yard punt to the Buckeyes' 24, and Corey Brown sliced through the NU coverage and ran it back 76 yards for the touchdown — one of many Husker special-teams mishaps on the season.
Leaving Iowa City with two important starters on crutches: Nebraska clinched its Legends Division title with the 13-7 win at Iowa, but it turned out to be a costly trip as the Huskers lost key members of their offensive and defensive lines along the way. Senior center Justin Jackson injured his left ankle on the first series. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (right knee) went down in the third quarter. Don't think for a second that the injuries had no effect in Indianapolis.
A slip and pick, then a collapse in the Big Ten championship game: Already in an immediate 7-0 hole against Wisconsin, Nebraska started its first offensive possession of the Big Ten championship game with a safe route by receiver Kenny Bell. As the throw came from Taylor Martinez, however, Bell came out of his break off balance, and getting his hands on the ball only slowed it for Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie behind him. Cromartie returned the interception 29 yards for another Badger score just 2:07 into the game.
Bo's memorable moments
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is steadfastly himself, and he gets positive and negative attention for his bold, outspoken, competitive personality. Here are five memorable moments from Nebraska's season in which Bo was part of the football story.
Trip to the hospital: At halftime of Nebraska's game against Arkansas State, Pelini gets in an ambulance and goes to the hospital for precautionary tests on his heart. Pelini had strong indigestion in the first half and got his blood pressure checked on the sideline. In Pelini's absence, defensive coordinator John Papuchis becomes NU's de facto head coach on the sideline. Tests reveal that Pelini is very healthy, he said afterward. Just a scare.
Win out: Pelini returned to his alma mater, Ohio State, for a Big Ten inter-divisional tilt. NU wasn't ready for prime time, losing 63-38. Afterward, a strident, frustrated Pelini declares that his team must “win out” to reach the Big Ten championship game, which means beating a tough slate of league teams. Critics question whether Pelini's getting desperate, but Nebraska pulls it off, winning six games in a row to finish the regular season 10-2.
Blowup with Bell: On Northwestern's final touchdown drive, cornerback Antonio Bell commits a holding penalty and is yanked off the field by Pelini, who engages in an argument with the senior. Bell gives more than he gets. Bell is later off the team because of unspecified violations of team rules.
Détente with Daimion: After Penn State scores a second quarter touchdown, ABC cameras catch Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford yelling while Pelini — whose back is turned to the camera — attempts to calm the senior. Pelini later takes the blame for the touchdown in the postgame press conference. Stafford, safety P.J. Smith and linebacker Will Compton call a small press conference the following week to defend their coach's relationship with players. ESPN's “Game Day” program fashions a lengthy criticism of Pelini's sideline demeanor, complete with analyst Desmond Howard's criticism of the coach.
'How About That, My Man?': Usually, Pelini's radio call-in show is a rather mild affair. But a fan gets through the call screener to challenge Pelini's sideline behavior, suggesting it doesn't represent Nebraska. Pelini doesn't back down. “I'm a passionate guy,” Pelini responds. “I'm an emotional guy. I like to compete. When I'm out there, I'm different than I am when I'm off the field. My players appreciate that about me, and I'm not changing. How about that, my man?”
Bo and Tom: With Athletic Director Tom Osborne's retirement pending, Pelini persuades Osborne to lead the team's Tunnel Walk for the final home game vs. Minnesota. Osborne finally agrees and makes the trip. As they exit the tunnel, Pelini suddenly grabs Osborne's arm, turns the coach around, and raises the arm to the crowd, like a boxing champion. Memorial Stadium roars.
Martinez's magic moments
The mistakes are maddening, but Nebraska wouldn't have 10 wins without the game-changing ability of its junior quarterback — the Huskers' offensive MVP. Let's look back on seven memorable Martinez moments in 2012.
1. Quick zone read option run (at UCLA): The decision has to be made in an instant, and sometimes Martinez makes the wrong one. But this time he got it right. He pulled the football away from Ameer Abdullah and sprinted down the middle of the field for a 92-yard touchdown run. Martinez looked like a redshirt freshman again.
2. Recovering a fourth-quarter fumble (vs. Wisconsin): In the teams' first meeting, the game was tied at 27. The Badgers were one turnover away from seizing control again. And boy, were they close. Abdullah fumbled on a second-and-11 play from the NU 15-yard line. But Martinez, following the play, alertly scooped up the loose ball in stride and picked up 9 extra yards. The heads-up recovery helped lead to the game-winning field goal.
3. Lowering the shoulder on fourth down (vs. Ohio State): The game was nearly out of hand, but that's what makes this play so meaningful. Martinez wanted to throw a quick pass to Kenny Bell, but the receiver slipped and fell. The Huskers needed 2 yards, so Martinez scrambled for 3. And he paid the price. He absorbed a strong blow and disappeared underneath a pile of five Buckeye defenders. Again, note the situation: NU trailed 49-31 with 3:04 left in the third quarter.
4. Fourth down completion (vs. Michigan State): Needing 10 yards, Martinez hung in the pocket and waited for Kyler Reed to find a weak spot in the Spartan zone defense. When Reed flashed free, the football was on its way. The 38-yard completion with 40 seconds left preserved the eventual game-winning drive.
5. Off-balance third-down completion (vs. Penn State): It was third-and-18. The Nittany Lions' pass rush was rapidly collapsing the pocket. Martinez stepped up and started moving to his right. Then he spotted Jamal Turner. Martinez, throwing across his body, delivered a 30-yard dart to Turner, who never had to break stride. It was the kind of unplanned play-making that spoils defensive coordinators' sleep cycles.
6. Becoming Nebraska's career passing leader (vs. Minnesota): Late in the blowout, Martinez was recognized for his feat. And suddenly the often-introverted star was on the Memorial Stadium big screen. After some encouragement from a teammate, Martinez smiled, waved and blew a kiss to the cheering home crowd.
7. Third down touchdown scramble (vs. Wisconsin): Perhaps a Big Ten title game blowout was inevitable. But this remarkable play provided a momentary spark. Martinez first scrambled to his right to avoid a free defender, but he spun back left and moved toward the opposite sideline. He eventually cut toward the middle of the field and broke free for a 76-yard touchdown run (which was actually more like a 130-yard scamper). If that's a truly tease for 2013, Martinez's senior year will be special.
The Huskers lost their first two road games of the year, bounced back and reeled off three wins away from Lincoln, including fourth-quarter comebacks against Northwestern and Michigan State, only to take a step back in Indianapolis. Here's a breakdown of those games:
Week 2: UCLA
Final score: L, 36-30
During a seasonably warm Pasadena day, on a field manicured like the golf fairways outside the stadium, Nebraska's defense lacked the speed and skill to keep up with UCLA's no-huddle offense. The result: The Bruins racked up 653 yards on a whopping 94 plays in a 36-30 Husker loss. The Rose Bowl was an ideal setting for football. Great tailgating, the San Gabriel mountains, and pink thunderheads in the distance. Husker fans turned out in force. They left disappointed by NU's inability to adjust to UCLA's schemes and talent.
Week 6: Ohio State
Final score: L, 63-38
The Horseshoe lived up to its billing. It's a cavernous, regal stage for football, especially at night, when the lower deck of the stadium extends back into the darkness. It feels like a stage. The raucous student section sits in the open end in a large slab of seats. Recruits lined the field. They saw OSU's offense run for 371 yards — 7.7 yards per carry — in a 63-38 rout.
Week 7: Northwestern
Final score: W, 29-28
More than 20,000 Nebraska fans made their way to quaint Ryan Field. Many of those fans rode lurching, slow-moving L trains from downtown Chicago to get there. But once they did, they could snack on an authentic Chicago hot dog outside the stadium — hot peppers, poppyseed bun, even the celery salt — and watch a memorable comeback inside the stadium, as NU rallied from a 28-16 fourth-quarter deficit for a 29-28 win. Quarterback Taylor Martinez hit 10 of 13 passes on back-to-back touchdown drives.
Week 9: Michigan St.
Final score: W, 28-24
A memorable visual from the game in East Lansing was Nebraska's band, on the sideline, arguing for a key pass interference call against MSU corner Darqueze Dennard late in the game. NU got that flag and won the game a few plays later on a Martinez pass to Jamal Turner. Spartan Stadium had a terrific setup, especially for replays. Michigan State fans were treated to plenty of shots of Martinez, who ran for 205 yards on just 17 carries. Nebraska players and coaches seemed most proud of this comeback.
Week 12: Iowa
Final score: W, 13-7
So, so cold. Kinnick Stadium is set up so one long corridor is used to reach seats on either sideline, and a strong north wind whipped down that corridor to frigid effect, emerging on the other side to whip up paper and scarves. Nebraska muscled out a 13-7 win over the Hawkeyes, scoring the game's final 10 points and holding Iowa to 200 total yards.
Week 13: Wisconsin
Final score: L, 70-31
Great stadium, good eats, nice hotels, lots of museums, a big downtown mall, all within walking distance — Indianapolis is a terrific location for the Big Ten football championship. Well, except in one way: The city gets so many events (including the 2012 Super Bowl) that it clearly wasn't jazzed for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin. Lucas Oil Stadium had 20,000 empty seats. The people who didn't show up didn't miss much: The Badgers pummeled Nebraska, using 539 rushing yards to pound out a 70-31 win.
Five Huskers to watch next season
Ameer Abdullah, I-back, 5-9, 185, So.: With Rex Burkhead in and out of the lineup, Nebraska desperately needed a reliable option to take pressure off Taylor Martinez. Enter Abdullah. The shifty and elusive I-back emerged as a do-it-all guy, running inside and out, catching passes in the flat and downfield, and protecting his QB in passing situations. Abdullah had more than 100 rushing yards in each of the Huskers' first four victories during their six-game winning streak.
Kenny Bell, Receiver, 6-1, 185, So.: He showed glimpses of his talent as a redshirt freshman, but Bell solidified himself as the go-to receiving target in Nebraska's offense this season. Bell's quickness keeps defenders honest, as does his deceptive route-running ability. He can burn you deep or catch a quick screen. Either way, tackling the speedy Bell once he secures the football isn't easy. Plus, he's a skilled run blocker and a dedicated team leader. His streak of 23 consecutive games with a catch was snapped at Iowa.
Ciante Evans, Defensive back, 5-11, 185, Jr.: After a disappointing sophomore season, Evans rededicated himself to the game's mental side, mastering the defensive playbook. He mostly played the nickel position, where part of his responsibility was to know the roles of the teammates lined up around him. He didn't understand it last year. But by the spring, Evans was comfortable and confident. And in the fall, he was eliminating opponents' top receiving threats.
Cole Pensick, Guard/center, 6-2, 275, Jr.: Nebraska needed an extra guard in preseason practice, so the backup center volunteered. He ended up earning a regular spot in the rotation, splitting time with Seung Hoon Choi at left guard. Pensick, a former defensive lineman, was one of NU's most consistent O-line performers in 2012. He also backed up Justin Jackson at center, and played the majority of the Big Ten title game at that spot.
David Santos, Linebacker, 6-0, 220, RFr.: It took a couple of games for Santos to earn the coaches' trust, but once he secured a linebacker spot in the nickel formation, he started showing his potential. He was regularly sidelined when offenses utilized a downhill-style approach (veteran linebackers were preferred). But Santos fit well when teams tried to spread NU out. He had a season-high 10 total tackles against Michigan, and he forced a potentially game-saving fumble against Penn State.
What went wrong in Indy
Lee Barfknecht: No words adequately describe the obliteration that took place. To fall behind 63-17 in the third quarter of a game you are favored to win against a team you already had defeated indicates being outcoached, outplayed, out-gameplanned, out-adjusted, out-executed and outsmarted.
Rich Kaipust: Run defense and ball security. Those were Nebraska's two biggest flaws all year and Wisconsin exposed them. Yes, the Badgers probably had more talent than we gave them credit for. But once they grabbed momentum, the Huskers appeared to panic. The meltdown was as much mental as physical, which is stunning considering the number of veterans in Bo Pelini's starting lineup. It'll take a long time to shake off 70-31. It probably can't explain away a 39-point loss, but you'd better believe that one team felt the pressure of expectations and the other fed off the security of being a five-loss team with nothing to lose. It showed from the demeanor of the head coaches through the week right into the body language of their respective players that Saturday night. It's one more thing the Huskers had better learn how to manage as they continue trying to take that proverbial next step.
Sam McKewon: Nebraska's offensive and defensive fronts had shown some signs of wearing down after NU's 32-23 slugfest win over Penn State, which coaches called the most physical game of the season. Wisconsin had the players and game plan to stress Nebraska where it had already been taxed by injuries to center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler. When you weaken the middle of a line, you actually weaken your flanks, because you're trying to compensate for the weakened middle. The Badgers knew it, attacked accordingly and the Huskers, unprepared and lacking depth, went into panic mode.
Jon Nyatawa: Wisconsin got its running backs out in space and isolated Nebraska's weakside defenders (often in one-on-one situations). The Blackshirts couldn't adjust. Meanwhile, the NU offense had four second-quarter possessions that all lasted fewer than two minutes. The light-speed pace, often effective, made things worse in Indy.
Tom Shatel: I've heard the word from Madison, Wis., is that the Huskers looked gassed in the Big Ten title game. I don't know that I totally buy that. In theory, it makes some sense. Five of Nebraska's last six games went down to the last quarter, if not the last possession. Depth on the offensive and defensive fronts took a hit. So physically and mentally, the Huskers may have been under a quarter tank. But look at Wisconsin: The Badgers had their own gut-busters down the stretch, including three overtime losses. And yet they had plenty in the tank. I wonder if, subconsciously, the Huskers thought they had achieved the goal set by Bo Pelini back in Columbus. Maybe Bo should have said they needed to win their last seven games. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.