EVANSTON, Ill. — He barely cracks a smile. Not a big grin or a dour frown or a laugh or a mean mug to be found on Taylor Martinez's face.
It's not an opinion to call him an enigma. It's an observation.
But with just more than eight minutes left in Saturday's game against Northwestern, the enigma could still deliver Nebraska's season from a self-inflicted tailspin and a 28-16 deficit.
So at twilight in this stadium, Husker senior safety P.J. Smith paid the quarterback a sideline visit. The Huskers were in the kind of hole — actually, metaphorically, perhaps even emotionally — that it might as well have been a visit to some oracle.
“Bring us home,” Smith said to Martinez. “You go down there and score. We'll get the ball back. And you go score again.”
“I got you,” Martinez replied.
And after the Wildcats dropped two interceptions thrown right into their paws, the junior from Corona, Calif., did bring it home in a stadium that practically felt like it for Nebraska. The Huskers beat Northwestern 29-28 in a game that boiled down to Martinez's late touchdown marches and a missed 53-yard Wildcat field-goal attempt with just more than one minute remaining.
“I'll take this win any day,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Because it wasn't looking good there for a while.”
In front of 47,330 fans at Ryan Field — at least 20,000 were clad in red — Martinez engineered two scoring drives, tied the largest fourth-quarter comeback in Nebraska history and completed his third double-digit comeback. On the deciding drives, Martinez hit 10 of 13 passes and threw both touchdowns, including a precise fade route to backup Taariq Allen.
“He showed what type of quarterback he is,” Smith said. “He stepped up to the plate.”
“We needed him,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We knew it was going to be one of those games. We needed the quarterback to do it. And he responded. I was really proud of him.”
“I played pretty well,” Martinez said without irony. He didn't know his final numbers — 342 yards passing, 65 rushing yards, four total touchdowns and 57 overall pass attempts and carries — until after his press conference. That's when, underneath Ryan Field's end zone seats, a Nebraska media spokesman handed him a white statistic sheet full of them.
That stat sheet told a few more stories, too. Familiar ones to a hot-and-cold 2012 season:
>> The Huskers lost three fumbles — including two muffed punts — but forced no turnovers.
>> Nebraska committed eight penalties, including a Daimion Stafford personal foul that wiped out a first-quarter fumble recovery, and two flags because offensive linemen didn't set up on the line of scrimmage.
“Just ridiculous, careless penalties,” Pelini said. “I don't fault the referees.”
>> Despite racking up 543 total yards and 26 first downs, the Huskers converted just 3 of 14 third downs.
>> The Huskers' defense gave up just 301 yards, but that included an 80-yard touchdown run by Venric Mark and a 26-yard touchdown pass.
“We had confidence before the first play,” Smith said. “Matter of fact, before we even came into the state, we had confidence we were going to go out and do what we were supposed to do. But plays happen.”
>> Returners had an anemic 14.8-yard average on kickoffs and minus-1.67 yards on punts.
>> Two unsuccessful two-point conversion plays, plus a failed fourth down.
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Nebraska's defense forced 12 punts, stuffing the Wildcats' running game and mostly smothering Northwestern wide receivers in the passing game. The Huskers' offense ripped off chunks of yards. And yet Nebraska (5-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten) trailed by 12 until late. Pelini said the team kept shooting itself in the foot with mistakes, much like it did in last year's 28-25 loss to Northwestern.
“For a second there, I felt like I was watching film — a replay of last year's game,” he said. I-back Rex Burkhead was hobbled by a knee injury. The defense was depleted by injuries, too. And the Wildcats (6-2, 2-2) not only made a key fourth-down stop — as they did last year — they converted a key fourth down on their final touchdown drive. As they did last year.
But unlike last year, Northwestern kept more than enough time on the clock for Nebraska to stage a comeback. Tight end Ben Cotton described the Huskers in the second half as a “ticking time bomb, ready to explode.” He meant this as a compliment, even if Nebraska provided compelling evidence for a contrary definition.
Said Martinez: “Everyone knew we were going to score a touchdown. You could feel it throughout the offense. We just knew that once we get the chance, we would score again.”
On the first fourth-quarter touchdown drive, he threw two straight passes right to Northwestern players. One pass got tipped around, Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald said, like his team was playing volleyball. But both fell to the ground.
“When you have a chance for a turnover and you miss it, the football gods usually strike you somewhere,” Fitzgerald said. “Two in one drive, it's not good.”
Given an extra life — and then another — Martinez took advantage. On third down, he hit tight end Kyler Reed for a 16-yard gain to midfield. Three plays later, he found Quincy Enunwa 30 yards downfield on a deep post. On second-and-goal from the Wildcat 8, he floated a pass to Allen, who caught it falling backward.
“Big-time catch,” Pelini said. “Great throw.”
Nebraska's defense needed to make a stop and got one, forcing a three-and-out when quarterback Trevor Siemian couldn't find Wildcat athlete Kain Colter on third down.
Martinez got the ball back at his 24 and immediately hit Enunwa again on a post route for 31 yards. Then he checked into the same post route for Jamal Turner and hit him for 25 yards. Martinez found Cotton on the next play for a 7-yard touchdown. Pelini tried to call time out before the play, but didn't get it in time.
“Was he really?” Martinez said, betraying a small smile.
The Huskers led 29-28 with 2:08 left. By then, Nebraska fans packed in one end zone were screaming, yelling and stomping so loud that the Wildcats had to go to a silent count typically reserved for road games.
Still, Northwestern moved into Nebraska territory and Jeff Budzien had a 53-yard field-goal try in calm conditions. Budzien started the ball at the right goal post. The ball inched left, then tailed wide right at the last second. Too much mustard on it.
“Wow,” Pelini said afterward. “What do you say about that one?” He then praised Nebraska's resiliency while admitting frustration at “getting ourselves in that situation.”
Martinez nearly dug the hole deeper. But when Northwestern declined the gifts, the quarterback — who Saturday moved past David Humm and Joe Ganz on the career passing charts — made the Wildcats pay. Did the enigma deem it his best game? He wasn't sure. He hadn't thought about it much at the time. But he offered this:
“It's one of my top ones.”
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>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Nebraska linebacker Will Compton after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Jon Nyatawa's postgame analysis: