For the second straight week and fourth time this season, the 18th-ranked Cornhuskers (No. 16 in BCS) overcame a double-digit, second-half deficit to win a football game.
This time they came from 14 points down to beat Penn State 32-23 Saturday, with Taylor Martinez throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner early in the fourth quarter for Nebraska’s first lead.
”We’ve got a lot of heart,” Martinez said, ”and we know we can come back from anything.”
The Huskers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) were in danger of losing control of the league’s Legends Division after Michigan rallied to beat Northwestern in overtime earlier in the day.
As it is, Nebraska owns the tie-breaker over the Wolverines with games remaining against Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road.
Penn State (6-4, 4-2) had its three-game Big Ten road win streak end.
”Losing is a terrible feeling. It’s miserable. Absolutely miserable,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. ”It’s like a part of you dies, to be honest with you.”
The turning point, according to Penn State, was a fumble in the middle of the fourth quarter with Nebraska leading 27-23.
Referees ruled that PSU tight end Matt Lehman fumbled the ball into the end zone before crossing the goal line. Nebraska recovered, and the call was confirmed on video review.
O’Brien said he thought the ball broke the plane.
”They just didn’t feel like they could reverse it,” he said. ”He tried to reach it out. You can’t do that. He was just reaching it out. Good kid trying to make a play.”
Ameer Abdullah ran for 116 yards on a career-high 31 carries, and Martinez finished with 104 yards as the Huskers pounded away on the ground on a windy afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
Zach Zwinak led the Lions with 141 yards on 21 carries. Quarterback Matt McGloin was 18-of-37 passing for 240 yards, with one interception.
Martinez, just 6-of-14 for 56 yards in the first half, completed all six of his second-half passes and finished with 171 yards through the air.
The Huskers got touchdown runs of 1 and 2 yards from Imani Cross early in the third quarter to tie it and wipe out a 20-6 deficit.
After Penn State went up 23-20, Martinez threw 56 yards to Kyler Reed on a third-and-5 before finding Turner on a short slant in the end zone for a four-point lead with 10:57 left.
Penn State looked ready to regain the lead, but then Lehman’s fumble happened. After catching a short pass on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, linebacker David Santos popped Lehman and he dropped the ball. Daimion Stafford, whose interception set up Nebraska’s tying TD, pounced on it.
After the game, referee John O’Neill said in a statement, ”The ruling on the field was a fumble short of the goal line. It went to replay and the replay official said the play stood based on the views he had. It’s ultimately his decision.”
Pelini said it helped that the officials initially ruled it a fumble.
”You got to have indisputable evidence to overrule it,” he said. ”Something that bang-bang, usually it ends up going however they rule it on the field. We were kind of fortunate.”
McGloin said: ”We’re not going to get that call here. We’re not going to get that call ever actually, against any team. It doesn’t matter who the refs are… It’s us against the world and we’re not going to get those calls in these types of games.”
Nebraska went three-and-out after Lehman’s fumble, but pinned Penn State at its 2-yard line after Brett Maher matched his career high with a 69-yard punt.
McGloin was called for intentional grounding after getting chased to the back of the end zone by Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin. The play resulted in a safety, and Nebraska led 29-23.
Penn State got another chance but turned over the ball on downs. Maher added a 33-yard field goal, his third of the game.
The Huskers forced three turnovers, none bigger than Lehman’s.
”We needed to win that phase, and we did,” Pelini said. ”Obviously, that helped us win the football game.”
Usually the Huskers, who came in 106th nationally in turnover margin, are the ones who have difficulty holding onto the ball.
The Lions scored to go up 17-6 after Nebraska’s Tim Marlowe fumbled fielding a punt in the second quarter, and Martinez fumbled into the end zone on the first play of the fourth.
Already this season, the Huskers made up double-digit deficits in the second half to beat Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State. Last week they took their first lead against the Spartans with 6 seconds left.
”I wish we’d get a lead (early),” Martinez said. ”But once we realize we’re down by that many points, we have to start picking it back up. I don’t like it personally and I’m sure the fans don’t either, but what happens happens.”