Dienhart: 'Looks like it will be Nebraska's year'
It’s official: This looks like it will be Nebraska’s year. This wild and crazy finish in a 28-24 win at Michigan State is just the latest example in what has been an incredible and impressive three-game stretch for the Cornhuskers.
The latest victory was largely authored by quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose game-winning touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with six seconds left pushed Nebraska to victory and a 7-2 overall record and 4-1 in the Big Ten.
“I knew they were going to blitz, but I decided to go for it right there,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “Why go to overtime if you have a chance? I felt we had a pretty good rhythm going and trusted Taylor to make the right decision, and he did.”
But most importantly, the victory allowed the Cornhuskers to remain in control of their own destiny in the Legends.
“We just keep fighting,” Martinez said. “This is what champions do, just keep fighting.”
This season-changing three-week run began with an exhilarating 29-28 win at Northwestern that saw the Huskers rally from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to win.
Then, Nebraska came home and whipped Michigan, 23-9, in an overwhelming defensive effort that saw the Huskers yield just 188 yards.
Today, the Cornhuskers rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter hole at Michigan State to claim victory.
“I wish we could make it easier on ourselves,” said Pelini, whose team also rallied from 17 down to beat Wisconsin this season. “I’m aging quick. I’m 44, but I don’t know how old I am now. After the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve aged about 20 years.”
It’s a stunning rise for a program that looked lost after two abysmal defensive efforts earlier this season. First, there was a 36-30 loss at UCLA in September that saw Nebraska allow 653 yards. That was the second most yards ever allowed by a Husker defense.
Then, the Huskers were ripped for 63 points in a loss at Ohio State in October. After the humiliating loss in Columbus, Nebraska was 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten and at a crossroads of sorts. That’s when Pelini said it.
“Nobody’s more disappointed than I am,” he said in the rubble off that ugly loss at Ohio State. “Obviously, we didn’t play our best football. Like I just told our football team, we need to win out. We need to win out.”
So far, so good, on that proclamation by Pelini, who in his fifth season in Lincoln finally looks primed for a breakout season. Yes, Pelini led the Huskers to a pair of Big 12 title games, but he never cashed in. But this year looks different.
This year feels different. This year may indeed be different.
The Cornhuskers are primed to win the Legends Division as they are in pursuit of the program’s first conference title since it won the Big 12 back in 1999.
This game was billed as a classic matchup between the Big Ten’s best offense vs. the Big Ten’s best defense. The Cornhuskers had the No. 1 offense in the conference (489.1 ypg); the Spartans had the No. 1 defense (267.4 ypg).
Something had to give, as Nebraska wanted to keep the gas on in its quest to win the Legends and Michigan State wanted to get bowl eligible and knock off another top team to salvage what has been an up-and-down and disappointing season.
But it was the Cornhuskers who kept their quest alive, continuing to develop a steely will and uncanny calm under fire.
The Cornhuskers shredded the Big Ten’s top rushing defense that was allowing just 91.2 yards on ground, running 40 times for 313 yards. That works out to a robust 7.8 yards per carry.
Martinez did most of the damage, running 17 times for 205 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered some big runs, including a 71-yarder for a score in the second quarter (Watch it). And his 35-yarder for a touchdown in the fourth quarter also was special (Watch it). Oh, and Martinez also hit 16-of-36 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns, but he had three interceptions. Still, his work with his feet more than made up for his passing shortcomings.
Michigan State looked to be in control of the game after Le’Veon Bell scored on a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to give the Spartans a 24-14 lead. But that’s when the Huskers rallied to score the final 14 points to claim victory.
Give credit to that formally maligned Cornhusker defense. Several players recently earned their Blackshirts. And they showed they deserved them in not disappointing on this day, as the Spartans had 361 yards and largely saw their passing attack handcuffed. Spartan quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed just 9-of-27 passes for 123 yards with one touchdown. Last year, the Huskers held Kirk Cousins to just 11-of-27 passing for 86 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
Up next for Nebraska is a visit from Penn State. Then Minnesota comes to Nebraska before the Huskers finish the season at Iowa. This is a confident Cornhusker that will be tough to beat, knowing that no situation it faces is insurmountable.
“Just knowing we’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said, “we know we can’t be stopped once we put our minds to it.”
|BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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