Nebraska was beginning to run out of feet after three fumbles, numerous penalties, and two big plays from Northwestern’s offense nearly sent the Huskers home with their second straight loss. However, Taylor Martinez, Quincy Enunwa, and the rest of the Huskers overcame a 12-point deficit in the final eight minutes to leave Evanston with a dramatic 29-28 win.
The Blackshirts awoke from their slumber—two weeks after being humiliated by Ohio State—to shut down Kain Colter and the Northwestern offense for most of the day as Nebraska did just enough to get the victory. After taking a 29-28 lead on a seven yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to Ben Cotton, the Wildcats drove to the Nebraska 36 when Jeff Budzien’s 53-yard field goal went very narrowly wide right and the Huskers were nearly home. Northwestern got the ball back with eight seconds left and two passes fell incomplete to seal the Nebraska victory, tying the largest fourth-quarter deficit overcome in school history.
The first quarter was dominated by the Huskers, especially the Blackshirts as Northwestern went three-and-out four times in the opening period. After a nice drive that resulted in a 27-yard Brett Maher field goal, Nebraska was set to get the ball back after Venric Mark fumbled a punt and Ben Cotton recovered at the Northwestern 16. However, a personal foul penalty on Daimion Stafford gave the ball back to the Wildcats who went three-and-out before pinning Nebraska deep in their own end. Rex Burkhead would leave again with his left knee injured and Northwestern would eventually take over after Ameer Abdullah’s fumbled punt at the Nebraska 14 and go up 7-3 on Trevor Siemian’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Dan Vitale as the first quarter was just about in the books.
Nebraska kept marching however, but was undone again by another fumbled punt—this time from Kenny Bell as Northwestern had another shot to punish the Huskers. Another three-and-out however for the Wildcats as Nebraska got the ball back and Kyler Reed found himself running deep in Northwestern territory before the fumble bug bit again, and the Wildcats took over on their 22. One more three-and-out and Nebraska got the ball at the Northwestern 46. Two plays later, Martinez found Bell for a 37-yard touchdown and the Huskers had the 10-7 lead. Somehow, the three fumbles lost only resulted in seven Northwestern points.
With 4:03 left in the first half, Northwestern put together their best drive of the opening 30 minutes, which was capped off by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to Tony Jones to give the Wildcats the 14-10 lead heading into halftime. Northwestern had been testing Stanley Jean-Baptiste all half long and were finally able to beat him over the top for the score. Save for that play, we saw why Jean-Baptiste had worked his way into the starting lineup at corner. All in all, Nebraska had outgained Northwestern, but three turnovers had stopped momentum and allowed the Wildcats to take the advantage.
So with one of the two big plays for Northwestern in the books, where was the second going to come from? On Northwestern’s first drive of the second half, the Wildcats went 93 yards in four plays. The fourth play just happened to be Venric Mark going 80 yards up the middle for a touchdown. A great block on David Santos allowed Mark to go virtually untouched through the linebackers and off to the races. A Nebraska drive stalled near the Northwestern 30, the Blackshirts forced another punt, and the Huskers narrowed the deficit to 21-16 on a three-yard Martinez touchdown run with 1:09 left in the third quarter. Then, Nebraska went for the two-point conversion which was no good, and Northwestern carried a 21-16 lead into the fourth quarter, giving the ball back to the Huskers to set up a chaotic series of events to start the final period.
Nebraska was faced with a 3rd and 13 on their own 24 yard line when Martinez scrambled away from pressure and nearly completed a pass for a first down at the 40, with pass interference called on Northwestern. However, an illegal man downfield penalty on Seung Hoon Choi negated the pass interference AND a five-yard sideline warning on Nebraska was tacked on to bring up 3rd and 19. Martinez scrambled again and hit Jamal Turner for an apparent first down up to the Nebraska 43, but an illegal formation penalty wiped that out too. After a third try on third down that was incomplete, the Huskers punted back to Northwestern as the Wildcats took over on their own 48.
The third down defense from Nebraska had been stellar, as Northwestern had made only two conversions in the first three quarters. Here though, they picked up two on third down and added a fourth down conversion before Mike Trumpy scored from three yards out to put the Wildcats in front 28-16 with 8:31 to play and a possible meltdown in Husker nation. But not so fast my friends—Martinez led the Huskers down the field in ten plays to pull the Huskers within 28-23 with 5:55 to play thanks to an eight-yard touchdown pass to Taariq Allen. Another three-and-out from the Blackshirts and Nebraska had the ball back on their own 24 with 4:10 to play and a chance to get the victory.
Quincy Enunwa had left the game early in the third quarter after a near circus catch on the Northwestern 10 and at one point had his shoulder pads off. So naturally, Enunwa put the pads back on and provided two huge catches on Nebraska’s big drive to put him over 100 yards receiving for the day. His second catch put Nebraska on the Northwestern 32 when Martinez found Jamal Turner for 25 yards down to the Wildcats’ 7. On the next play, Martinez found Ben Cotton for the go-ahead touchdown to give Nebraska a 29-28 lead. A missed two-point conversion and ensuing kickoff gave Northwestern the ball at their 25 with 2:08 to play.
Northwestern responded for their third best drive of the day, driving down to the Nebraska 36 before it had to attempt a 53-yard field goal with 1:16 to play. Jeff Budzien had not missed a kick all season—perfect on PATs and perfect on field goals—and nearly remained that way, but his attempt sailed wide right by mere inches to preserve the narrow Nebraska lead. After burning their final timeouts, Northwestern took over on their own 18 with eight seconds left and that was all she wrote. Nebraska had completed the comeback and avoided disaster, which was largely self-inflicted.
So how did it happen? Why was Northwestern still in a game—and ahead for most of—when they were outgained 543-301, had only 14 first downs to Nebraska’s 26, and threw for only 121 yards? Turnovers, penalties, and defensive miscues reared their ugly head again as they have for the last three games. Somehow, the three fumbles resulted in only seven Northwestern points and were Nebraska’s only turnovers of the day with Martinez playing turnover free football. Penalties negated big conversions from the offense however and some horrid special teams play gave Northwestern short fields in which they scored twice as the result of. And somehow, Nebraska didn’t quit when it found themselves down by 12 halfway through the fourth quarter.
While the defense deserves a lot of the plaudits, Martinez and Enunwa will be the heroes—and rightfully so. The game-deciding drive saw Martinez go 5-for-5 for 74 yards with two of those passes and 37 yards going to Enunwa as the Huskers completed the comeback. The final drive saw Martinez lead with the poise of a guy who knew he couldn’t be stopped, capping off his third career 300-yard passing game with a 29-of-37 day for 342 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Over the last two drives, Martinez went 10-of-11 and led drives of 80 and 76 yards that both resulted in touchdowns. Say what you will about his decision making at points, but he was THE man for Nebraska and his passing was nearly perfect. If he hadn’t been, Nebraska would be staring 4-3 squarely in the face and the season would seem lost. Instead, the Huskers salvaged their first road win since their 17-14 victory at Penn State last November and remain in control of their Big Ten destiny with five games to play.
Let’s grade it out…
It didn’t take long for the running game going, despite the absence of Burkhead who missed all of the afternoon except for the first two drives. Abdullah cracked the 100-yard barrier for the second time this season as the Huskers eclipsed the 200 yard mark rushing again—now in every game in 2012—with Martinez pitching in 65 of his own. Martinez was stellar in the passing game as we noted above with those 346 yards passing, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Reed’s fumble and costly penalties stopped Nebraska on this day however. It just kind of seemed like something was missing until those final two drives, but thankfully they found whatever was missing to score 13 points and get the victory.
From a statistical standpoint, Nebraska’s 543 yards of total offense, a nearly five minute advantage in time of possession, 26 first downs…you name it—it would have looked like a Husker win going away. Give Northwestern a little credit for standing up on third downs as Nebraska converted just 3 of 14 on the day, however. Other than the fumble and missed chances on third downs, Nebraska would have been perfect. But the third downs proved to be momentum killers and put the Huskers behind the eight-ball. Results are results however, let’s bridge the gap and go with a B for the offense.
As mentioned earlier, Northwestern really had two big plays on offense and that was it. Venric Mark doesn’t have close to 100 yards if it weren’t for his 80 yard touchdown in the third quarter. Trevor Siemian was 15 of 35 for 116 yards passing on the day and would have been under 100 yards if it weren’t for his 27-yard touchdown to Tony Jones. Overall, the defense shut down Kain Colter too, as the man who gave the Huskers such fits a year ago in Lincoln could only muster 57 yards of total offense through the air, on the ground, and receiving. If you’d have told me the Blackshirts would have faced 75 plays and given up only 301 yards, limited Colter to those 57 yards, and forced 12 punts, I would have guessed Nebraska was walking out of Evanston with a lopsided victory. If you eliminate Mark’s 80 yard touchdown run, the Blackshirts held the Wildcats to just over 2.7 yards per carry.
But football is a funny game. The biggest plays for Northwestern’s offense directly resulted in 14 points and let the Wildcats take the lead for much of the game. For a unit that was embarrassed in prime time against Ohio State two weeks prior, this certainly looked like a bunch that had something to prove, even with depleted ranks in its front four. Chase Rome, Kevin Williams, and Avery Moss were all out of action, forcing Baker Steinkuhler, Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Joe Carter, and Eric Martin to play a ton of snaps. Save for Mark’s run, the defensive line dominated and kept Colter contained. The linebackers played well and the secondary was nearly perfect on the day with Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans making the biggest plays on the day. We’ll give the defense an B+ to A- for the two breakdowns, otherwise it’s an A.
The Special Teams
Nebraska’s coverage teams on both kick and punt returns was stellar, as Maher hit two touchbacks and was largely able to avoid the dangerous Mark in both return games. However, Maher did shank a punt to midfield in the second quarter that allowed Northwestern a short field en route to the go-ahead score before half time and the return games were absolutely awful yet again. Nebraska’s first fumbled punt from Abdullah gave Northwestern their first seven points while the second fumble from Bell negated a short field that Nebraska’s offense would have had.
Limiting Mark in the return game was a big feat. Two turnovers and poor starting field position as a result of both the kick and punt return games is unforgivable and largely avoidable. If Northwestern had been able to muster any kind of returns on the afternoon, this would be a solid F. Giving away seven points directly with seven more coming off a short field from a bad punt puts you down 14 points, but since the defense bailed the special teams out, we’ll barely pass them with a D-.
It’s become a too familiar theme for this team to shoot themselves in the foot and somehow pull out the game in the end. There are way too many fumbles, whether it’s on offense or on special teams, there are way too many penalties at inopportune times in all three phases of the game, and there are still too many breakdowns on defense which result in big, scoring plays. Luckily for Nebraska, they were able to control the line of scrimmage nearly all game on both sides of the ball and especially on defense. And luckily for the Huskers, Martinez and Enunwa hit their stride in the final eight minutes; otherwise the outcome would have been surely different.
Does the win make everything else better? No, of course not. The miscues named above will have to be corrected and at this point, you either wonder they ever will be or when the barrel runs out of said mistakes. I’m not sure if Nebraska fans will have their fears eased somewhat after the performance and shut down of Colter just two weeks after the debacle Braxton Miller heaped on the Blackshirts with Denard Robinson and Michigan coming up, but you have to be encouraged by how the defense played against the Wildcats.
And then there’s Martinez, who’s taken his share of criticisms over his three years as Nebraska’s starting quarterback. All Martinez did was lead the Huskers to victory with two impressive drives down the stretch as not only Enunwa, but Abdullah, Turner, Cotton, and others made big plays to help him out. Martinez showed Saturday the flashes of absolute leadership and resolve we’ve seen before—namely, in last season’s comeback over Ohio State and the comeback over Wisconsin to start Big Ten play this year. The funny thing is, Nebraska shouldn’t have been in that situation. But they were, and to their credit they answered the bell to equal the largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history, tying the 2009 win over Missouri and a 1966 win over Colorado. In the process, Martinez moved into second on the all-time Nebraska passing list past David Humm and Joe Ganz and became just the seventh player in FBS history to have 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 rushing before his senior season.
So with five games to play and Nebraska 1-0 on their march to winning their final six games and a trip to Indianapolis as Legends Division champions, what lies ahead? The first visit from Michigan to Memorial Stadium since 1911 and a chance to avenge last year’s painful 45-17 loss to the Wolverines. If Nebraska can contain Robinson and get the victory, the division is Nebraska’s to lose. Just as thought before the season, this is the game to make or break Nebraska’s season.
A win is a win, even if it’s by one point. And let’s not forget that this same Husker team melted down in a 28-25 loss to Northwestern at home last season, in which the Wildcats pushed the Huskers around and never trailed. Nebraska fought back Saturday and gained a small bit of revenge. Now, if they can figure out how to hang onto the football and eliminate—or even limit—penalties, then they’ll really have something. With five games to go, there’s still ample opportunity for not only that, but to finish the conference slate at Lucas Oil Stadium in December and potentially a return to the Rose Bowl. Part of the process? We’ll find out in five fast moving weeks.