Saturday, November 10, 2012
Huskers make crazy work like a charm
By Brian Bennett
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.
But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.
"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.
At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.
Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.
So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.
"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."
Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.
The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.
Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
After losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.
Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.
"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."
The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.
Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.
Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?
"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."
Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.
"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."
Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.
Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.
That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.
"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."
But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.
"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."