EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Of all the comparisons made by Nebraska’s players and coaches after Saturday’s 28-24 come-from-behind win over Michigan State, a prize fight seems most apt.
Nebraska improved to 7-0 all-time against Michigan State.
And for those counting, Nebraska’s has now found itself in three pretty big street brawls, making three come-from-behind wins from double-digit deficits in Big Ten play alone this year.
“That was about as much of a heavyweight fight as you could imagine,” wide receivers coach Rich Fisher said. “That was a good football team and we had to scratch and claw and obviously we didn't play our absolute best. We weren't real efficient. It's funny. When the pressure is on and we need to get it done, that seems when we're hot.”
This time around, Nebraska scored 14 points in the last seven minutes of the game to pull out an improbable win and maintain control of its own destiny in the race to go to the Big Ten title game.
With Nebraska in field goal range, offensive coordinator Tim Beck asked head coach Bo Pelini how aggressive Nebraska wanted to be. Pelini told Beck to hit the gas, and Taylor Martinez found Jamal Turner for a 5-yard touchdown to win the game with six seconds left.
Beck said he was proud of the way the team responded when it was down double digits in the fourth quarter.
“My message to the team was to come out swinging and keep swinging until the clock hits zero, zero, zero,” Beck said. “You have to keep fighting and fighting. We've endured a lot. We've had injuries and one of our best programs has played how many quarters. We've had injuries, and sickness and they keep battling and fighting all the way to the end. That's the spirit these guys possess and I'm proud to be a part of that."
Resilience and dealing with adversity was a big topic with the team during the bye week, and since then, Nebraska has responded with come-from-behind wins over Northwestern and Michigan State and a dominating home win over Michigan.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense moved 80 yards over nine plays to score the winning touchdown In the fourth quarter alone, Martinez accounted for 176 yards of total offense, rushing seven times for 68 yards and a touchdown and completing 8-of-17 passes for 108 yards and one touchdown.
Ameer Abdullah ran for 110 yards on Saturday.
On the deciding play, linebacker Will Compton said he buried his head in his hands on the bench and refused to watch the play. He said he didn’t know Turner hauled in the catch until Alozno Whaley grabbed him to start celebrating.
“This coming back stuff takes years off of you,” Compton said shaking his head. “Survive and advance.”
-- Michael Bruntz
Huskers show resolve
Nebraska overcame a lot of mental errors and a game Michigan State team to pull off a 28-24 win on the road.
Head coach Bo Pelini said the team's last second win showed him the sort of resolve and character that marks this year's Huskers.
"Honestly, I'm ecstatic for our kids...the kids on our football team," he said. "I've been saying it all along: this is a special group, great leadership and character. These kids want it bad."
Offensively the Huskers piled up the yards, finishing with a remarkable 473 yards against a stout Michigan State defense. On the defensive side of the ball Nebraska mostly held the Spartans in check as the Blackshirts were able to get key stops when they needed it.
However, the Huskers struggled at various points in the win. Nebraska lost the turnover battle 3-1, gave away points with a red zone turnover and a missed field goal, blew assignments while blocking, picked up bad penalties ranging from false starts to personal fouls, missed tackles and were occasionally out of place on defense.
Despite, how well Michigan State played at times, most of the wounds Nebraska incurred during the game were self-inflicted.
"I have a lot of respect for Michigan State, but from my standpoint, we have to stop being our own worst enemy," Pelini said. "We've got to just keep talking about it, working on it, and striving to get better in some of those areas that I think are holding us back from playing with the type of potential I think we are capable of."
Still the Huskers overcame those mistakes with a huge nine play, 80-yard drive that featured an improbable 38-yard completion on fourth down to Kyler Reed.
The moment really hit Pelini as the Nebraska coach said his heart was in his throat when the team came to the line. He said the playcall and execution went perfect.
"I just wanted to see us get the first down," he said. "I kind of put the read out there and Taylor made a good throw and catch, and it kind of kept us going."
The win keeps Nebraska in control of its own destiny as the Huskers pursue their first conference championship since 1999. Pelini admitted that the mistakes and flaws in Nebraska's win were both numerous and obvious. He said the staff will go back back to work immediately to correct some of things that hurt the Huskers on Saturday. But the coach also said it's easier to do that when you're come has bought in.
"We don't always play as smart as we need to play," Pelini said. "But one thing you can't question about the guys in that locker room behind me is their heart. Those kids play with heart. It really means a lot to them; it means something and I think it shows with how they play."
-- Mike Schaefer
Defense stands tall late
Nebraska leaned on its defense a lot Saturday and the Blackshirts responded late, shutting down Michigan State and getting the Husker offense back on the field.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he was happy with how his defense responded to the challenge of stopping Le'Veon Bell and the Spartan offense.
Nebraska stopped Bell short of a first down late in the forth, allowing the offense to take over. Even though he ran for 188 yards, Bell wasn't able to get enough in the forth quarter to spur Michigan State.
"When the chips were down and we were backed against the wall we did respond well," Papuchis said. "We did get the ball back, knowing that the last play of the game if they convert for a first down the game is over."
However, the running back did earn the admiration and respect of the Husker staff. He ripped off several big runs against the Huskers and had a knack for refusing to go down on the first hit.
"He's a big load now," Bo Pelini said. "I think he's a heck of a back. He is a really good football player and I have a lot of respect for him."
"Let's give credit where credit is due, Le'Veon Bell is a good player," Papuchis said. "He pounded the rock today."
The defensive coordinator said he'll be looking to correct Nebraska's run fits as the Huskers now get prepared to host Penn State, another team with a downhill rushing attack.
"Our run fits on some of their two back running games weren't very good," Papuchis said. "I was kind of surprised. They were running power and one back counter. Those are things that shouldn't be issues. There was a little bit of breakdown on our part."
Papuchis said he felt one of the turning points in the fourth quarter was how well the defense responded after Taylor Martinez's interception.
"The message to our guys at that point was, every second, every possession, every play is going to matter in this game and we had to get the ball back," he said. "I thought our tackling was good. We tackled well the last three series."
-- Mike Schaefer
Pass interference problems
Nebraska was whistled for pass interference multiple times during Saturday’s game, and Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said he might need to speak with Big Ten officials about how Nebraska plays defense.
“I think Michigan State plays a lot like we do at the corner position,” Pelini said. “They do a lot of press...I don't know if they see a lot of that in this conference. It's a little bit different. We play a little bit different then they are probably used to seeing."
Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph said that he doesn’t plan to address interference issues with his defensive backs because he doesn’t want them playing tentative against opposing wide receivers.
“If you have the kid out there thinking about it too much, he won't be out there to put himself in a position to make a play,” Joseph said. “Again, though we don't promote the penalty, we can't spend too much time on it because it's 1,000 different scenarios.”
-- Michael Bruntz
Third quarter blues
To say that Nebraska was spinning its tires a bit offensively in the third quarter is to put it lightly.
Nebraska’s offense had the ball three times in the third quarter and ran just eight plays in the frame, totaling just one yard of offense.
Michigan State had the ball to start the half, and because of its slow start to the half, Nebraska never really got to show off the adjustments it made at halftime.
“I was frustrated,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I thought we had some good answers at halftime, and we kept shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit. We were in a lot of long yardage, and your percentage goes down in converting those. We're fortunate to come away with a win. They played hard. It was a hard win.”
With Nebraska’s offense struggling to control the ball, Michigan State’s offense held the ball for 11 minutes and 39 seconds and seemed to be methodically taking control of the game.
Michigan State closed the third quarter by scoring a touchdown to put the Spartans ahead 10 points. Despite the disparity in time of possession, secondary coach Terry Joseph said he never saw his defense getting winded.
“They just kept playing,” Joseph said. “Nobody asked to come out. Nobody tapped out. Go to the next play and we'll play it again.”
-- Michael Bruntz
Turner makes a play
When Jamal Turner lost a sure touchdown in the lights in Nebraska’s win over Michigan last week, he vowed to himself that he would do whatever he could to not make the same mistake.
The sophomore wide receiver went so far as to remove the visor from his helmet before the start of Saturday’s game to avoid the glare.
When Nebraska called the exact same play with 11 seconds left on Michigan State’s 5-yard line, Turner was ready to make a play.
“I can’t believe that we won the game like that,” Turner said. “I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life.”
The touchdown catch was the first career touchdown catch for the former quarterback. He said after the game, a number of his teammates were still in full pads celebrating the win.
Turner said he had all the confidence in the world that Nebraska was going to score to end the drive.
“On the last drive we were saying, ‘we’ve got them beat,” Turner said. “They’re tired. Just like last year, we wore them down. Let’s hit them in the mouth, let’s end the game, and that’s what we did.”
Turner credited wide receivers coach Rich Fisher with calming him down on the sidelines. Fisher said he was proud of the way Turner stepped up and made a play for a battered wide receiver group.
“I saw it unfold,” Fisher said. “I felt comfortable when the play was called that he would make a play and he did. He's grown up a lot and for him to have that catch in that situation speaks volumes for that group. We lost Timmy, and Quincy was banged up the whole game and we had to suck it up and make a play. The best play on that last drive was Quincy's catch. For Taylor to see that was huge. I'm proud of the team. It's surreal right now. Goes to show you the character of the team.”
-- Michael Bruntz
-- Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said Nebraska hadn’t actually planned to use the quarterback run much in Saturday’s game, but he credited Martinez with opening running lanes for Ameer Abdullah, who finished with 110 yards rushing.
-- Senior wide receiver Tim Marlowe left the locker room after the game with his shoulder wrapped, but said he would be fine going forward.
-- Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said his group wasn’t fazed by running the hurry up offense late in the game Saturday. “It's a beautiful thing about being a fast-paced, no huddle offense,” Beck said. “It doesn't really affect us since we play that way all the time. That situation doesn't make them nervous. I think I make them more nervous playing fast and getting up on the line of scrimmage.”
-- Senior linebacker Will Compton on the play of Nebraska’s defense on Saturday: "Really, we didn't have that great of a day,” Compton said. “We need to fit up the run better. Le'Veon is a great player. He's not a guy who just hits the hole. He kind of looks for stuff. He dances around, sometimes he hits it. We didn't play Blackshirt defense to the standard we should have. When it was needed, coach (Papuchis) said, we didn't play as well as we should have, but when it mattered, you got off the field and you shouldn't hang your head."
-- Nebraska was minus-two in turnover margin in today’s game and is now minus-10 for the season, including minus-eight in Big Ten play.