Once again, some late-game magic helped Nebraska overcome a bevy of mistakes and pull off a wild comeback on the road.
Despite three turnovers and numerous penalties and mental miscues, the Huskers managed to erase a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and knock off Michigan State 28-24 on a last second touchdown pass from quarterback Taylor Martinez with just six seconds left in the game.
The win marked the third time this season that the Huskers (7-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) have come back from 10 points or more in the second half.
"It's right up there," head coach Bo Pelini said of where Saturday's win ranked for him. "It felt good. Honestly, I'm ecstatic for our kids, the kids on our football team. I've been saying all along, this is a special group. Great leadership and tremendous character. These kids want it bad. Like I said, we don't always play as smart as we need to play, but one thing you can't question about the guys in that locker room 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."
The Huskers racked up 473 total yards on the Big Ten's top defense, including 313 on the ground, marking the most the Spartans (5-5, 2-4) have given up in a game all season.
Martinez ended the day 365 combined yards and four total touchdowns, with 205 rushing yards. The performance put him moved him career total up to 8,166 yards of total offense, passing Eric Crouch for the most in school history.
"I think we have a great team and coaching staff who keep fighting," Martinez said. "I think it's awesome because so many great people came through Nebraska and it's an honor to be able to pass them up. I couldn't have done it without my teammates and coaches. I'm honored."
Nebraska seemingly did all it could to give the game away in the first quarter, making numerous mental mistakes to help give Michigan State an early lead.
After a 16-yard punt by Brett Maher on the opening drive and a costly holding penalty, Martinez threw a terrible interception right to MSU safety Kurtis Drummond. The Spartans then converted two long third downs and got a pass interference call on NU for another on a 12-play drive that was capped off with an 11-yard touchdown run by Le'Veon Bell.
The Huskers were able to answer right away, though, as Martinez ripped off a 59-yard run and then threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Ameer Abdullah on third and goal to tie the game up at 7-7 with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska marched down the field on its next drive, but receiver Kenny Bell dropped a potential touchdown pass on third down and then Maher shanked a 30-yard field goal.
Michigan State took full advantage of the momentum swing on its ensuing possession, as Bell barreled his way for a 40-yard run and then quarterback Andrew Maxwell hit Tony Lippett on a 46-yard touchdown strike to reclaim the lead at 14-7 with just under 6:56 left in the half.
Once again, the Huskers were quick to respond. Keyed by a great crack-back block by Bell that took out three MSU defenders, Martinez took a keeper around the right end 71 yards for a score to even the game up with 3:11 to go before halftime.
Michigan State came into the game ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense (15 points per game), rushing defense (91.2 yards per game) and total defense (267.4 ypg), but Nebraska nearly equaled all of those averages in just the first two quarters.
The Huskers put up 263 total yards with 211 coming on the ground, led by 208 yards of offense by Martinez, who had 156 rushing yards on eight carries in the first half. Michigan State's previous opponent season high for rushing yards in a game was 204 by Ohio State.
It was the Spartans who set the tone on the ground to start the second half, though, as 20-plus runs by Bell and Nick Hill set up first and goal, but they had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Dan Conroy to go back up 17-14.
Martinez made another costly mistake on a prayer deep pass to Quincy Enunwa that was intercepted by Darqueze Dennard and returned to the NU 38-yard line. The Spartans capitalized with a 1-yard touchdown run by Bell to push the lead up to 24-14 with 14:20 remaining in the game.
Nebraska had a golden opportunity to cut it to a one-score game on the following drive, but Dennard picked off Martinez again at the MSU 5. Dennard returned the ball all the way for a touchdown, but a penalty during the return negated the score.
In typical fashion, Martinez bounced back from his costly mistake and came through with another huge play on NU's next drive, this time scrambling for a 35-yard touchdown run with 7:02 left to make it 24-21.
The defense followed that up with a clutch three-and-out stand, and a nice punt return by Tim Marlowe started NU at its 39 with just under six minutes to play. After moving the ball into Spartan territory, though, a fourth-down pass from Martinez to Enunwa came up short for a turnover on downs with 3:12 remaining.
The Huskers were able to force Michigan State to punt and got the ball back at their own 20-line with 1:20 to play and no timeouts remaining.
"We knew that the offense was going to score and that the game was going to come down to our play," senior safety P.J. Smith said. "Everybody stepped up to the challenge."
On the first play of the drive, Martinez hit Enunwa for a 22-yard pass to the NU 42, but three straight incomplete passes left Nebraska facing a 4th-and-10 with 40 seconds on the clock.
After a timeout by the Spartans, Martinez hit tight end Kyler Reed over the middle for a 38-yard gain down to the MSU 20 with 31 seconds left. Facing a third-and-10, Dennard was called for a pass interference on a pass to Bell, giving NU the ball at the 2-yard line with 17 seconds remaining.
With the game on the line, Martinez came up with the play of the season when he found Jamal Turner in the back corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with just six seconds to play. The score was Turner's first career touchdown catch.
"We knew exactly how we wanted to handle that situation," Pelini said. "Obviously I trust Taylor a lot to be able to manage the situation. He understands. We've been through that in practice. We've been there, done that... (Offensive coordinator Tim Beck) asked me, he said, 'What do you want to do? Do you want to play it safe?' I said 'Let's got win the football game."
A flurry of pitches on the ensuing kickoff were to no avail, as the Huskers recovered the final fumbled pitch and sealed the crucial Big Ten victory.
"We've been in that situation before a couple of times and we know we can't be stopped," Martinez said of the game-winning drive. "Coach Pelini called a great series of plays on that last drive and our receivers were able to make some big plays, especially Jamal on that last play."
Nebraska will look to further distance itself in the Legends Division standings next week when it plays host to Penn State, where kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.
"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 our holding us back from playing with the type of potential I think we're capable of."