EVANSTON, Ill. - Moments after Northwestern's Mike Trumpy barreled his way into the end zone to make it 28-16 midway through the fourth quarter, two of the leaders of Nebraska's offense and defense made a pact on the sideline.
Senior safety P.J. Smith walked up to junior quarterback Taylor Martinez with an offer - if he and the offense could just get two more touchdowns on the board, Smith and the defense would make sure the Wildcats would not score another point the rest of the night.
Turns out both sides lived up to their ends of the bargain.
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"I went to Taylor and I said, 'Hey, bring us home. You go down and score, we're going to get the ball back and you're going to score again,'" Smith said. "We all had the same mindset. We were going to win this game. We weren't going to leave here with an L. He said, 'I got you.'"
After a rough start to the day by the Huskers offense, Martinez managed to put together one of the most impressive quarters of his career when Nebraska needed him the most. On NU's two scoring drives in the end of the fourth quarter, Martinez completed 10-of-13 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Add in the 16 yards he picked up on the ground, Martinez ended up with 156 total yards of offense in the two biggest drives of the night.
By not buckling when the Huskers' season looked to be falling apart, the Corona, Calif., native not only earned further respect from his coaches and teammates, but also helped keep his team alive in the Big Ten Legends Division title race for at least another week.
"He showed what type of quarterback he is," Smith said. "He stepped up to the plate. We all have confidence in Taylor. We never lost confidence in him ever. He stepped up and he took that challenge."
Martinez's 342 yards on 27-of-39 passing were 12 shy of his career high and marked his third 300-yard passing game of the season. Head coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck raved about his play on Saturday, especially when the pressure was at its peak.
"Overall, Taylor played a pretty outstanding football game," Pelini said. "He was poised the whole football game. He kept his poise better than his head coach did."
"I thought it was gutsy. I thought that he kept plays alive and got it to guys downfield and ran hard today. I was really proud of him. I told him after the game, I said, 'I'm really proud of you.' I think there's a lot of pressure on him. Last week he sucked, this week he's the greatest quarterback ever. That's kind of how things go, and I told him that. You've just got to keep working to get better and keep learning and developing his skills. He played a really good game, and we needed him to do so and he did. He delivered when he needed to."
After the game, Martinez was asked where Saturday's performance ranked on his list of personal-best games in his Husker career.
"I think it's one of my top ones, I would say," Martinez said. "I was pretty good."
- Robin Washut
Enunwa fought off injury to own the fourth quarter
On a drive early in the third quarter, Martinez launched a deep pass to Quincy Enunwa, who was running a post route. The junior leapt in the air and got both hands on the ball, but dropped it when he fell to the turf.
The drop was tough to take, but the Nebraska sideline immediately became more concerned with Enunwa's health as the receiver remained on the field. He smacked his shoulder and head on the ground and came out of the game, even taking off his shoulder pads for a while.
But he wanted an opportunity to avenge the drop and when the trainers gave him the green light, he got his chance.
"It was a scary moment. I thought I blacked out," Enunwa said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to go back in, but the training staff said I'd be able to do it. So I went back in and played my best."
It's safe to say the comeback couldn't have been completed had Enunwa not sucked it up and reentered the fray. He set career highs in receptions (six) and yards (110) and his play in the fourth quarter kept the NU offense afloat. Enunwa had four catches for 74 yards in the final period alone.
"For him to be able to come back on the field and come up with those catches is tremendous," receivers coach Rich Fisher said. "It shows huge character. Quincy is a talented player, but for whatever reason, he just hadn't had a chance to shine. It was nice for him to be able to put some things on his back a little bit and make some huge catches down the stretch."
One of those catches came on the Nebraska's final scoring drive on the same play call that left Enunwa injured a quarter earlier. This time, the receiver snagged the ball amidst three defenders for a 31-yard gain.
"Same play, different result," Fisher said.
Enunwa is a physically imposing receiver at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds and is most known for his blocking and toughness. So when the trainers told him he was cleared to return to the game, he had no doubt he could get it done.
"I just kind of told myself that if I'm going to play, I'm going to play as hard as I can," Enunwa said. "I can't come back in injured and play half-ass, so I came out there and tried to do my best."
- Dan Hoppen
Little-used Allen comes up with one of game's biggest plays
Late in the fourth quarter, Enunwa had returned to the game and was making his impact felt. But after receptions of seven and 30 yards, the junior headed to the sidelines for a quick breather. After an incomplete pass at Northwestern's eight-yard line, Beck wanted a fade to the end zone.
And with Enunwa on the sidelines, he turned to a redshirt freshman with one career reception.
The gamble paid off. Martinez launched a high-arcing pass to Taariq Allen, who used his 6-foot-3 frame to out-leap the defender and come down with the ball inbounds to cut NU's deficit to five.
"That's a big time catch," Pelini said. "It was a great throw. Great throw, great catch. To get his feet in, I mean, it was contested - that was a heck of a play by that young man."
As soon as he saw the defense line up, Allen had a good idea the ball could be headed his way. He was the backside receiver and was all alone with the defender. The Huskers had been working on the play all week and it played out just like they drew it up.
"As soon as he called it, I thought, 'OK, this could be my opportunity to get a touchdown,'" Allen said. "The safety was playing inside leverage, so you've got to stem him up. I knew as soon as I stemmed him up, that I could stick him and go back outside. I saw the ball and just went to make a play. It's all cloud nine right now. I don't know how to react right now. This is crazy."
Fisher said Allen's playing time had been limited this season because he felt more comfortable giving snaps to the more experienced members of the receiving corps. Coming into the game, Allen had seen only two passes thrown his way all season, making one three-yard reception against Arkansas State.
But the coach was confident the youngster could make a play in a big spot.
"Steve (Osborne) and Quincy and Taariq have tremendous size and talent and skill and sometimes it just takes an opportunity," Fisher said. "It was awesome to see him make that play in that situation and I'm sure it's going to give him a lot of confidence moving forward."
All season long, the team has talked about having a next-man-up mentality. But to see that "next man" come through in one of the game's biggest moments will do nothing but buoy the confidence of Allen.
"I think when you talk about not missing a beat - when Quincy went down, I just had to step up," he said. "You can't really think about it. I know the coaches have confidence in me or they wouldn't have called the plays for me. I appreciate that from (Beck)."
- Dan Hoppen
Maher manages to keep Mark in check
Nebraska's special teams threatened to cost them the game Saturday, and although he didn't muff any punts, Brett Maher didn't help their case with a second-quarter boot that traveled just 16 yards. Northwestern got the ball at midfield and seven plays later, securing a lead it would hold until late in the fourth quarter.
But other than that one error, Maher had possibly his best game of the season. He had two punts of more than 50 yards and downed four of his eight punts inside Northwestern's 20-yard line.
Good punting is always important, but the stakes were even higher because of the threat Northwestern returner Venric Mark represented. Mark was averaging 29 yards per punt return with a pair of scores coming into the game, but the Huskers limited him to 21 yards on two returns.
"They obviously had a really good returner coming into the game, so we were trying to eliminate him and for the most part we did," Maher said. "We were trying to just get fair catches and get as close to the sideline as we could. It was a pretty good day all around except for the first half when I had that slip-up.
"Especially in the second half, we really controlled field position. Field position played a big part and that was definitely in our favor."
Even when Mark left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter, Maher's job was far from easy. With less than 30 seconds left, the senior was called upon to punt the ball back to the Wildcats. He couldn't afford to have the kick blocked, nor could he let Northwestern get a big return.
Maher unleashed a 45-yard boot that Tony Jones fumbled and recovered at his own 18-yard line, giving the Wildcats almost no chance of coming back.
"We just didn't want to let him get a return, whether that be putting it out of bounds or forcing a fair catch," Maher said. "I ended up hitting a good ball and that was pretty big to not let them get a return and have a chance at the end."
And as elated as Maher was to see Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien's game-deciding kick sail wide right, a part of him felt for his kicking counterpart. Budzien had made all 11 of his field goals this season before that kick.
"That's a long kick," Maher said. "He's had a great season to this point. Hopefully he doesn't let this rattle him too much. It's a tough situation, but definitely as a kicker, that's something you're hoping for."
- Dan Hoppen
Sea of Red gives Huskers an edge on the road
Just as it has for most road games the past 40 years, Nebraska fans certainly made their presence felt at Ryan Field on Saturday. Of the 47,330 fans in attendance, at least 25,000 of them were donned in Husker red.
When NU mounted its fourth-quarter comeback, there were times when the defense was on the field that it almost felt like a home game.
"Our crowd was phenomenal," Pelini said. "Obviously I couldn't talk to everyone of them, but I thanked them coming off the field. I thought they brought great energy to us. They stuck behind us. At times is felt like a home game… Our crowd was big time for us here on the road. That's one of the special things about playing here. Our fans are different. They travel, and they had a big time impact on that game. Our guys fed off of that, I thought."
Senior defensive end Cameron Meredith said having that kind of fan support on the road definitely gave the Huskers a bit of a boost, especially when things were getting tough in the second half.
"It was really loud," Meredith said. "I thought it was louder than when we were on offense. On that last drive, there was just so much momentum going, it really helped us out as a defense. You could just feel the energy in the stadium."
When the game ended, several NU players went over to one of the red-clad ends of the field and gave high fives to the fans to thank them for their support. While a lot has changed over the years in Nebraska football, one aspect that's remained a constant has been the Husker fans turning out in droves every time the team hits the road.
"It gives us energy," Smith said. "When we go on the road, it's our house. In the fourth quarter, they really got it cracking. We're thankful for the fans."
***Pelini singled out nickel back Ciante Evans as one player who had as good of a performance as anyone on the team against Northwestern.
"I thought Ciante Evans played an absolutely phenomenal football game today," Pelini said. "He was just one guy to me from the sidelines who stood out. He was on (Kain) Colter a lot of the game and contested and made a lot of great plays."
***Senior running back Rex Burkhead left the game in the first quarter after once again re-aggravating his injured left knee. Beck was asked if it would get to a point where the staff would seriously evaluate how it uses Burkhead from here on, and he said it's difficult to keep him off the field.
"We tried, but he's such a competitor," Beck said. "He wants to play."
***Pelini said NU's play on defense wasn't a matter of any changes to the defensive scheme, but more just better overall execution from the unit.
"I thought we executed really well," Pelini said. "Didn't do anything fancy, but executed to a really high level. Our guys really understood the game plan, and I thought our preparation was the key. We prepared well, and I thought it showed… The misconception out there is that we do all this complicated stuff. What it requires to execute our defense is discipline and focus, and I thought our guys did that really well."
***Just before Martinez hit tight end Ben Cotton for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, Nebraska's coaches were running up to the officials trying to call a timeout. Apparently Beck saw something he didn't like from Northwestern's defense before the snap, but luckily the refs didn't notice the coaches until after the play started.
"I thought maybe they were going to be pressuring, and I was nervous about the protection we were in," Beck said. "I wasn't sure that was the best thing for us at that time. I liked the route. I liked what the coverage was at. I just wasn't sure we could protect. Today, that was one of the things that hurt us. We had some guys open, we just couldn't get them the ball because of the blitzing or alignment issues they presented with some of their pressures."
***Nebraska was without starting cornerback Josh Mitchell and defensive linemen Chase Rome, Kevin Williams and Avery Moss on Saturday as all were held out with injuries. Mitchell was a surprise scratch, as Pelini said he injured his ankle at the end of Wednesday's practice.
***Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said that while the defense had to carry the team for most of the game, the offense and special teams have definitely helped out his unit on plenty of occasions in the past.
"Football's the ultimate team sport with three different phases to it," Papuchis said. "There's been a lot of times this year that our offense has picked up defense, times when our defense has picked up our offense, and then times when our offense picked up both units. Today, we were put in some tough situations, and I thought we stood up for the most part in those spots."