A sloppy start turned into a beautiful finish for No. 22 Nebraska on Saturday night.
Taylor Martinez guided four consecutive scoring drives against a tiring Wisconsin defense in the second half to lead the Cornhuskers’ comeback from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Badgers 30-27.
Martinez scored on a 38-yard run, threw a 10-yard TD pass to Kyler Reed and set up Brett Maher for the tying and go-ahead field goals. Maher’s 41-yarder with 9:41 left gave the Huskers (4-1, 1-0) their first lead in the Big Ten opener.
”That’s the way we should normally play,” Martinez said of the Huskers’ second-half surge. ”We struggled because we couldn’t get a rhythm going. We put our defense in a tough situation. Luckily they kept making stops and we kept scoring points.”
Danny O’Brien, who replaced Joel Stave, tried to bring back the two-time defending Big Ten champion Badgers (3-2, 0-1) with less than three minutes to play. But Montee Ball fumbled at midfield on a fourth-and-1, and Martinez took a knee three times to run out the last minute.
”Obviously it was a tale of two halves,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. ”You could feel that momentum switch in the second half and it was something our guys never really able to get back in their grasp.”
The comeback tied the second-largest comeback in program history, trailing only Nebraska’s rally from a 21-point deficit in the third quarter last season against Ohio State.
Nebraska overcame Rex Burkhead’s fumble and a roughing-the-kicker penalty that helped Wisconsin get out to a quick lead and then a Martinez fumble early in the third quarter that the Badgers turned into a 27-10 lead.
”We kept our composure, and we knew we could get back into this game if we didn’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot and giving ourselves bad field position,” said linebacker Will Compton, who had 10 tackles. ”We knew it would take one good drive, and we would go from there.”
Martinez ran for 107 yards and threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
”I thought Taylor did some really good things,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ”He started slow and got better as the game went on. He settled in and played a pretty good football game.”
The Huskers continue their difficult conference schedule at unbeaten Ohio State before opening Legends Division play at unbeaten Northwestern on Oct. 20.
”It’s going to be the team that gets better week to week,” Pelini said, ”and that’s the challenge in front of us. We have a heck of a challenge in front of us next week.”
Burkhead ran for 86 yards for the Huskers.
Ball, coming back from a head injury last week, carried 32 times for 90 yards and three touchdowns.
”This is the worst feeling ever. We had it. We clearly had it,” Ball said. ”We were dominating the entire game until, well, the entire first half. We just have to play a four-quarter game. We have to keep our foot on the gas.”
Both teams wore eye-catching alternate uniforms — Nebraska in all red with black helmets and Wisconsin in mostly white with red trim — and the Huskers and their fans were juiced up for the game after Nebraska was beaten 48-17 in Madison last year.
Playing off the energy of the boisterous Memorial Stadium crowd, the Nebraska defense held the Badgers to 90 yards in the second half. The Badgers netted just 56 yards rushing for the game.
”Contrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run,” Pelini said.
Martinez kept the Badgers defense on the field way too long in the second half, and it showed as the Huskers picked up yards in big chunks.
The Badgers had threatened to break open the game after defensive end David Gilbert blew past Nebraska left tackle Brent Qvale on his way to sacking Martinez and knocking the ball loose on the Huskers’ fourth play of the second half.
Chris Borland picked up the ball for his second fumble recovery of the night, and four plays later Ball ran in from the 2.
The Huskers then started the comeback.
Martinez scored from 38 yards, slipping through the line on a quarterback draw and outrunning Dezmen Southward to the left pylon.
The Huskers got a three-and-out after Ball, needing a yard for a first down, bounced backward off his offensive lineman and Sean Fisher wrestled him down.
Martinez then led the Huskers 75 yards in 10 plays to make it a three-point game after he hit tight end Reed with a 10-yard pass across the middle of the end zone.
With the crowd raising the decibel level with chants of ”Go Big Red, Go Big Red,” the Huskers forced another three-and-out.
Martinez moved the Huskers from the 37 to the Wisconsin 21, and Brett Maher’s 38-yard field goal made it a tie game heading to the fourth quarter.
After yet another Wisconsin punt, the Huskers went from their 16 to the Wisconsin 24, and Maher hit a 41-yarder for the lead.
The question coming into the game was whether Stave would be poised in making his first road start in such a big game.
It turned out that the home team was the unsteady one early. Stave was just fine — actually, better than fine in the first half. He threw for 214 yards and a touchdown but couldn’t get much going in the second half.
The redshirt freshman threw a beautiful 54-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis on the game’s second play, and three plays later Ball scored from the 2.
Wisconsin got the ball right back. Burkhead fumbled while running up the back of offensive lineman Spencer Long. The Badgers went 23 yards for a quick 14-0 lead, with Ball bulling his way into the end zone from the 1.
After a Nebraska field goal, Abbrederis leapt in front of cornerback Andrew Green to catch a 29-yard touchdown pass. It was a 17-point game after Jack Russell missed the extra point.
Martinez led a 12-play drive that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 20-10, finishing it with a 3-yard play-action pass to Burkhead.