AMES, Iowa - Sometimes, when the deck is stacked against you like it was for Nebraska heading into its game against Iowa State, you just have to get lucky.
There's no denying luck was definitely on the Huskers' side on Saturday.
After blowing a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, Nebraska (8-1 overall, 4-1 Big 12 Conference) escaped with a victory on the game's final play when senior defensive back Eric Hagg picked off a pass on a fake extra point in overtime to preserve a 31-30 win over the Cyclones (5-5, 3-3).
Making his first start of the season in place of an injured Taylor Martinez, sophomore Cody Green did just enough to help guide the Huskers to their eighth straight Big 12 road win under head coach Bo Pelini.
In reality, the best quarterback of the day was running back Rex Burkhead, who took countless snaps out of the Wildcat formation and racked up a game-high 129 yards and two rushing touchdowns, including a 19-yard scoring run for the eventual winning touchdown in overtime.
"You win a football game, and I don't care how you do it, you enjoy it," Pelini said. "We won't treat this any different than we treat anything else. You win, yeah, I don't care how you win. I don't care if you win 101-100, in the end you've got to win the football game. You've got to find a way, and then the process goes on. You go back to work the next day, you correct the things that need corrected and you progress as a football team."
Following Burkhead's touchdown run on the first possession of overtime, Iowa State needed to reach the end zone to either tie it up or go for the win with a two-point conversion. The Cyclones did just that when quarterback Austen Arnaud hit Jake Williams on a 9-yard pass in the right corner of the end zone.
As the Cyclones lined up for what looked like an extra point to tie the game, Nebraska's coaching staff got a sneaking suspicion ISU coach Paul Rhoads had something else up his sleeve.
It turned out he did.
Holder Daniel Kuehl took the snap and rolled left for just a moment before lofting the ball to what looked like a wide-open Collin Franklin in the end zone. With the entire 51,159 in attendance at Jack Trice Stadium holding their breath as the ball floated in the air, a huge gasp of relief came from the NU sideline when Hagg came down with the football.
"We tried to warn them 'Watch the fake! Watch the fake!' But you know, everything's crazy and you don't know if they're hearing you," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "Hagg is the free guy and he goes to the fake, and he just made an outstanding play. But from where I was, all I saw was that dude standing in the end zone wide open with the ball floating to him, and Hagg just came out of nowhere. What a relief, right?"
Green completed just 7-of-12 passes for 79 yards, and the Huskers fumbled five times (losing two) and committed six penalties, but in the end, they did just enough to stay on top of the Big 12 North Division standings for another week.
"Emotionally, it's a rollercoaster, but luckily on the sidelines, we were very confident," Green said. "We knew this was right where we wanted to be. We knew that the work that we had put in, no matter what we were going to get the W. When you're confident like that, things like what Eric did, it's second nature. You don't think about it, it just happens."
It would have been hard to draw up a much stranger first half, as both teams had their share of highlights and blunders through the first two quarters.
With Martinez out of the game, Nebraska passed the ball just four the entire half and used a heavy dose of running between the tackles as its only real source of offense. The two teams combined for two turnovers, six penalties, two official reviews and two temporarily injured quarterbacks in the first half alone.
The Huskers got a real scare when Green walked off the field a bit dazed after taking a hit along the NU sideline on a first quarter run, though it turned out he just got the wind knocked out of him. With senior Zac Lee unable to play because of an injured throwing hand, Martinez entered the game as a decoy receiver for a play while Burkhead took the snap out of the Wildcat.
Running almost exclusively out of the Wildcat, Nebraska ended up marching 79 yards on 12 plays and scored on a six-yard run by senior running back Roy Helu with 13:13 left in the second quarter. Burkhead carried the ball fives times for 52 yards on the drive as the Wildcat quarterback.
The Huskers failed to score again before halftime, but Iowa State was able to get some momentum going offensively when Arnaud capped off a seven-play 47-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Williams in the right corner of the end zone to tie the game at 7-7 with 6:38 left in the half.
Following a fumble by Helu at the NU 41-yard line, ISU kicker Grant Mahoney drilled a career-long 57-yard field goal with 55 seconds left to send the Cyclones into halftime with a 10-7 lead.
Nebraska quickly reclaimed the momentum with 17 unanswered points highlighted by a pick-six by safety Austin Cassidy and a 2-yard touchdown run by Burkhead to jump out to a 24-10 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Just when it seemed that the Huskers were ready to run away with the win, Iowa State came storming back with 14 straight points of their own. Arnaud started the rally with a 1-yard run with 11:29 remaining, and NU return man Niles Paul handed the ball right back when he fumbled the ensuing kickoff after running out a return he should have probably downed in retrospect.
"He was just trying to make a play," Bo Pelini said of Paul's costly fumble. "It wasn't a very smart football play. That's Niles, and he was just trying to win the game. You don't have to try and win the game, you just have to do your thing. No one feels worse about it than he does."
Arnaud hit Robinson on a 13-yard touchdown pass three plays later, and all of a sudden the game was tied at 24-24.
The Cyclones had two chances to win the game in regulation, but Mahoney missed a 55-yarder with 3:19 to go and then ISU decided to take a knee despite getting the ball back at its own 17 with 40 seconds left and three timeouts remaining.
Fortunately for Nebraska, it had just enough luck left to get out of Ames with one final victory.
"Especially on the road, it gets hectic. It's crazy," Bo Pelini said. "It was much like the Oklahoma State game, but our guys don't change a heck of a lot. They hung in, and in the end we made enough plays to win the game. I don't think we played our best football. I thought we were sloppy at times, but like I said, we won the football game. I'm happy about that and told our guys to enjoy it.
"In these crazy games, you've just got to find a way to win. I'm just happy we found a way to win, because I don't think we played our best."
- Robin Washut
Green gets it done
Cody Green knew back on Tuesday that there was a chance he could start this week depending on the status of Martinez's right ankle come game day. When Martinez was deemed unable to play during pre-game warm-ups, Green's name was officially called.
While he was anything but impressive in his first start since last year's win over Baylor, Green was able to take over an offense in desperate need of dependable quarterback play and, regardless of how it happened, he helped lead the team to a crucial conference win on the road.
"It just felt great to get back on the field with the guys," Green said. "Not playing and not being on the field, you kind of feel distant, but you still try to do your best in getting there and making everybody feel like you're still part of the team. This was a big, big motivator for me."
Not only was Martinez held out as an emergency quarterback for the game, but Lee, the No. 2 quarterback, was also unable to play after re-aggravating a hand injury he suffered last week against Missouri earlier this week in practice.
In other words, Green and Latravis Washington were the only healthy options Nebraska had at quarterback on Saturday.
"He did a really nice job managing us and playing his role today, because that's the kind of day it was going to be," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "We just wanted to let him settle in and use Rex a little more in the run game because he could give us a little bit more, and (Cody) just had to manage us in the passing aspect."
As for Martinez, Bo Pelini said he made the decision to bench the star QB after seeing he just wasn't able to do the same things that have made him such an electrifying runner this season.
"We just didn't think it was the right thing to play him," Pelini said. "He wasn't 100 percent, but he's feeling better each and every day, so I think he's pretty close. We'll have a lot better idea come Monday, but I feel a lot better about where he is."
Pelini and Watson both said later they expected both Martinez and Lee to be back in practice on Monday and to be ready to play next week against Kansas.
For Green, it might not have gone quite as he had planned, but just getting back out there and running the offense again was the opportunity he'd been waiting on for more than a year.
"This year I was very confident and very confident in our plan, our guys, and I could really sit back and not be afraid to take chances and things like that," Green said. "I was very confident going in there."
- Robin Washut