As frustrating and emotionally draining as it might be, it appears Nebraska has found its own unique formula for success over the past four weeks.
For the fourth time this season, the Huskers overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half to pull out a victory in the final minutes, this time edging out Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.
After trailing by 14 points at halftime, Nebraska (8-2 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) out-scored the Nittany Lions 26-3 in the second half to take one step closer to clinching the Legends Division title.
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The win marks NU's third second half comeback of 14 or more points in its past six games. Coming into the year, the Huskers had overcome just four 14-point second-half deficits times since 1951.
"Happy to get out of here with a win," head coach Bo Pelini said. "It's a good football team that we played today, and I'm happy to come out of it with a win. I think we played obviously a lot better in the second half than we did in the first half. We talked about what we needed to do to get to Indy (for the Big Ten Championship game), and that's four down. We've got two more to go; just have to stay the course."
Before the second half rally, though, Nebraska first continued its recent trend of slow starts to open the game, as Penn State (6-4, 4-2) scored on its first possession with a 50-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Zach Zwinak.
The Huskers were able to put together a solid response on their ensuing drive, converting three third downs and marching all the way down to the PSU 6-yard line on a 30-yard pass to Jamal Turner. The 15-play drive stalled out from there, though, and NU had to settle for a 32-yard field goal from Brett Maher to make it 7-3 with 6:17 left in the first.
Coming into the game, Penn State had allowed just three first quarter points all season, have now out-scored their opponents 83-6 in the opening quarter on the year.
The Nittany Lions' offense was moving right along on their next possession until the Blackshirts caught their first big break of the day when linebacker Alonzo Whaley forced a Zwinak fumble that was recovered by linebacker Will Compton at the Penn State 6.
Eight straight runs set the Huskers up with another first-and-goal situation on their next drive, but they stalled out once again and had to settle for another Maher field goal, this one from 27 yards out to cut it 7-6 with 12:29 left in the second quarter.
Penn State added to its lead with a 27-yard field goal by Sam Ficken with 6:58 left in the half to make it 10-6. Ficken came into the game having made just 7-of-14 attempts on the year, but connected on all three of his kicks on Saturday.
The Huskers then helped Penn State get their second touchdown of the day when Tim Marlowe, who missed the entire week of practice with a shoulder injury, muffed a punt that was recovered by the Nittany Lions at the NU 31. Five plays later, quarterback Matt McGloin hit tight end Jesse James for a 10-yard scoring pass with 2:42 to go before halftime.
Ficken booted his second field goal of the day from 38 yards out - a season long - to send Penn State into halftime up 20-6 with 1:08 remaining, but it could have been worse had a fourth-down conversion run by McGloin been negated by a false start penalty, forcing the field goal.
Along with holding a two-touchdown lead going into the third quarter, the Nittany Lions racked up 255 total yards in the first half (160 passing, 95 rushing), including 82 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries from Zwinak. Nebraska's passing game was non-existent through the first two quarters, as quarterback Taylor Martinez was just 6-of-14 passing for 56 yards and was sacked twice.
"Like I told the team, I said, 'We've been in worse situations that this to start the second half,'" Pelini said. "In the back of my mind, I was hoping we could be even by the fourth quarter and pick up the wind going into the fourth quarter. To pull even basically within the first six minutes was big for us I think psychologically. That helped us. It was big."
Desperately needing to get its offense going, Nebraska got just the spark it was looking for on the first drive of the second half. A 22-yard pass to receiver Kenny Bell and a 21-yard run by Martinez set up a first-and-goal from the 1, and freshman running back Imani Cross barreled in for the score to cut the deficit to 20-13 with 11:48 left in the third.
The momentum swung even more in NU's favor when safety Daimion Stafford picked off McGloin and returned it to the Penn State 4. The pick was just McGloin's fourth on the season. Cross then pounded his way in from two yards out two plays later to even the game up at 20-20.
Penn State was finally able to settle things down with a 13-play drive that ended with another Ficken field goal, this time from 35 yards out to put the Nittany Lions back on top 23-20 with 6:01 to go in the quarter.
The Huskers looked poised to take their first lead of the night after marching deep into PSU territory on 12-play drive to close out the third quarter, but squandered the chance when Martinez fumbled at the 5 and the ball was recovered by the Nittany Lions in the end zone.
Nebraska's defense came through with a three-and-out stand to get the ball back, and this time around the Huskers were able to capitalize. Martinez hit tight end Kyler Reed for a 56-yard pass on third and long, and then found Turner on a slant over the middle on a third-and-goal from the 5 to put NU up 27-23 with 10:57 to play.
Martinez ended the day 12-of-20 passing for 171 yards and a touchdown and rushed 15 times for 104 yards.
"I thought Taylor played his butt off," Pelini said. "I thought he played really good. I wish he would've wrapped two hands around the football on the quarterback trap where he put the ball on the ground, but I thought he played at a pretty high-level. He was calm the whole time. I thought he played a good football game."
It was on Penn State's ensuing possession, though, when the Huskers may have gotten the biggest swing play of the game. The Nittany Lions had moved the ball down to the Nebraska 2, and McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman on a quick swing pass to the right side. Lehman dove for the goal line, but linebacker David Santos knocked the ball loose and Stafford recovered in the end zone.
The play was NU's third forced turnover on the day, marking a season high.
"It was big," Pelini said of winning the turnover battle. "We talked about it all week and going into the game that this team was very good at the takeaway and the turnover differential. We needed to win that phase and we did. Obviously that helped us win the football game."
The Huskers ended up stalling on their next drive, but a career-long 69-yard punt by Maher pinned the Nittany Lions at their own 2. That would end up being a huge play, as McGloin was called for an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety to put NU up 29-23 with just over five minutes remaining.
Penn State's last hope of a comeback was put to an end when defensive back Justin Blatchford batted down a McGloin pass on fourth down, and the Huskers merely ran down the clock and seal the win with a 33-yard field goal by Maher with 23 seconds on the clock.
When all was said and done, Nebraska ended up with 438 yards of total offense, with 267 coming on the ground. Penn State was allowing just 123.6 rushing yards per game entering the game.
The Huskers continue to control their own path to the Big Ten Championship game, and will now look to move even closer next week when they play host to Minnesota next week at 2:30 p.m. CT.
"I just believe that there's still a lot more out there for this football team, I really do," Pelini said. "That's why you practice. That's why you've just got to keep going. There's a great belief in that. I love the kids on this team. I love their approach, the want-to, and just how they respond. There's never a sense of panic with these guys. They believe in each other, they believe in what we're doing, and that always gives you a chance."