LINCOLN — Before the historic, unforgettable, rain-soaked comeback in Nebraska’s first Big Ten home game — before quarterback Taylor Martinez rose above the boos to a career-defining moment — there was No. 4, preaching hope.
Ohio State had just taken a 27-6 third-quarter lead over the Huskers. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini threw up his arms in frustration, then crouched on the turf with his miniature white board, furiously scribbling solutions. His defense, solemn, tired and silent, sat around him on a bench. Head coach Bo Pelini yelled a quick criticism. A smattering of boos trickled down from the Memorial Stadium bleachers.
Disorder. Frustration. Defeat.
And this is what senior linebacker Lavonte David did: He stood above his coordinator, faced his whole unit and rapidly tapped his temple. “Be smart!” he said. He did not yell, but he didn’t stop, either. “Be smart! Be smart! Stay up! We’re not out of this!”
He wasn’t going to let NU sink its head, he said later, like it did in a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin the week before. So minutes later, he forced a game-and-season-changing fumble of OSU quarterback Braxton Miller with a full-on stone shot to Miller’s chest.
“I had a chance to strip it, so I went after it,” David said. “It was something that we worked on all week. I took a shot at it and I got it.”
He recovered the fumble, too.
“That was a game-changing play,” Bo Pelini said. “That was a huge play in the football game. He’s been doing it since he got here.”
Martinez scored on an 18-yard touchdown run two plays later. 27-13. Then Martinez completed passes of 12, 20 and 36 yards on another touchdown drive. 27-20.
In the fourth quarter, Martinez — who threw for 191 yards and rushed for 102 — tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead for a 27-all tie. Burkhead then gave NU a seven-point lead with a 17-yard touchdown run just two minutes later, with 5:10 remaining in the game.
The Huskers forced one more Buckeye punt, ran out the clock, and celebrated the biggest comeback in school history, a 34-27 eye-popper that kept them from starting 0-2 in the Big Ten — and perhaps the whole state from burning up with criticism.
Pelini embraced every family member in sight. He met linebackers coach Ross Els in the tunnel with a bear hug. Fullback Tyler Legate carried around Martinez by his legs. Famous Husker alum and NFL defensive star Ndamukong Suh — dressed in black and flanked by former teammates Phil Dillard, Ricky Thenarse, Pierre Allen and DeJon Gomes — lifted his arms to the crowd, who showered him with a deep, abiding chant of “Suh!”
Then those 85,426 fans at Memorial Stadium — rather ambivalent just hours before, ready to turn from the field in disgust or, worse, disinterest — screamed and stomped and craned their necks for a look at Burkhead, who finished with 178 total yards and two touchdowns and ran into the locker room with his helmet still on.
“That was something else,” said Burkhead, who pranced around and pounded away at a Buckeye defense worn out by the rain and circumstances. “That was unbelievable. I’ve never been part of a game where we were down that much and we came back to win.”
David — who finished with 13 tackles — switched the mood, pushed the pendulum, reversed the tide. Even offensive coordinator Tim Beck — whom Bo Pelini said called a “phenomenal” second half — could see that from the press box.
“We needed a break,” Beck said. “Just everybody. We needed a spark. Can’t have fire without a spark. And that spark that he created for us, ignited us and got everybody going.”
Before that, NU — 5-1 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten — seemed just as sluggish as it looked in the waning moments of the Wisconsin loss. Behind Miller’s shifty scrambling, the Buckeyes used a run-heavy game plan to chalk up a 20-6 lead and 246-117 yardage advantage at halftime. Miller had runs of 24, 12 and 12, and burly Carlos Hyde busted through the Husker defense for a 63-yard touchdown rumble.
“We were our own worst enemy time after time in that first half — especially defensively,” Bo Pelini said.
That disparity grew when Hyde scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge just five minutes into the second half. Nebraska went three-and-out on its ensuing drive, and the Buckeyes (3-3 and 0-2) looked set to bleed some clock.
David struck just then, ripping the ball from Miller’s grasp. NU’s sideline jumped. The crowd rustled. Martinez got to work. Beck busted out a three-running back diamond formation that bamboozled the Buckeyes. Burkhead found his footing on a wet Tom Osborne Field just as OSU defenders were starting to slip.
And this is key: Miller got hurt on Ohio State’s next drive.
He was replaced by senior Joe Bauserman, who couldn’t have been worse, completing just 1-of-10 passes. His five drives ended in four punts and a pick by new NU corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste. That interception started the Huskers’ game-winning drive, which Burkhead closed with three straight runs, the last of them culminating in a leap for the pylon.
Like a wave, it was. Nebraska gained 306 second-half yards. OSU just 105. A crowd went from dead to delirious. A defense went from struggling to stalwart. Pelini went from furious to jubilant, although, by his postgame press conference, his game face was on again.
“That was up there,” he said of his best victories. “I’m proud of our football team. The character on our team. They just kept fighting. We’ve got a lot to fix. We’ve got a lot of areas we can get better at. Our kids showed a lot of character. I’m proud of those guys in the locker room.”
A graduate and former player at Ohio State, Pelini wouldn’t make much out of beating his alma mater. He resisted any urge over the course of four years.
“It’s not about me,” he said.
But there must have been something to the handshakes, hugs and standing ovation he received from a handful a staffers standing at the press conference. Something, right?
Burkhead thought so.
“We’re just happy we could win for them,” he said.
It was David who gave them the chance at a historic comeback.
“I feel like it’s my job to take over,” he said. “And be the leader everybody expects me to be.”
|Yards per carry||5.9||4.5|
Nebraska is 1-7 all-time against Ohio State.
|Fresno State||Sept. 10|
|Ohio State||Oct. 8|
|Michigan State||Oct. 29|
|Penn State||Nov. 12|
|South Carolina||Jan. 2|
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