EAST LANSING, Mich. — Will Compton couldn't watch.
With 11 seconds left, Nebraska had second-and-goal at the Michigan State 5-yard line. Compton had watched the whole drive from the sideline, hope and despair waging a tug-of-war within his gut.
Finally, after a Taylor Martinez incompletion on first down, the tension was too much to bear.
“I can't do this,” Compton told teammate Alonzo Whaley. “Let me know what happens.”
Compton turned away from the field, kneeled on the cold concrete, buried his head against a metal bench and pressed his hands against his ears. He closed his eyes and prayed:
I'm not even gonna tell you to give us this win. Please let these guys be safe out here and let your will be done. But it sure would be nice if we could get this W.
A loss and Nebraska would relinquish what it had seized a week earlier — the Legends Division lead. But ramifications don't explain the depth of emotions swirling on the sideline. This was bigger than one game. This was a test to prove if the 2012 Huskers were different.
Compton committed to Nebraska football five years ago, when Bill Callahan was still coach. He became a starter in 2009. He was on the field in Blacksburg, Va., when Virginia Tech completed a game-winning touchdown pass with 21 seconds left. He was on the field at Cowboys Stadium when Texas kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.
He was on the field in 2010 for Texas and Texas A&M and Oklahoma. He was on the field in 2011 when Nebraska's defense — a week after shutting down Michigan State — let Northwestern run the ball 13 straight times to ruin the Huskers' Rose Bowl hopes.
Yes, Compton has been there from the start. He and his teammates had tasted heartbreak. It had strengthened them. Prepared them for cold, dreary days like this.
Michigan State and Nebraska engaged Saturday in a Big Ten bloodbath. Rarely did a second-half series go by without a Spartan or a Husker lying on the turf, aching. There weren't enough trainers on the sidelines to administer all the concussion tests.
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The Huskers made big plays and gave up big plays, pushing their loyal fan base to the brink of despondency, then yanking them back. In other words, the usual.
Down 24-14 with 11 minutes left, NU's offense faced second-and-goal at the 5-yard line. Sound familiar?
Martinez threw an interception that went 96 yards the other way for a Michigan State touchdown. Had officials not flagged the Spartans for a personal foul during the return, the game would've been over.
“We felt pretty dead in the water,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “But that's our guys, man. They just keep battling. Keep battling.”
We've learned the past month not to expect the Huskers' best until they absolutely need it. So the comeback began. A Michigan State three-and-out. A quick touchdown. Another three-and-out.
Ron Brown has been around Nebraska football for 25 years. This team's resiliency ranks among the best. But that's only half the formula, he said.
“You have to have the arsenal,” Brown said. “You have to have the weapons. ... We have a lot of people who can make plays.”
On the final drive, Quincy Enunwa made one for 22 yards. Then Martinez hit Kyler Reed on fourth-and-10.
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Oh my gosh, Compton thought, we can do this!
Then Kenny Bell drew a pass interference in the end zone. Compton, after 11 tackles and a fumble recovery, turned away.
When Martinez dropped back on second-and-goal, so many bad things could've happened. An interception. A sack. A holding penalty would've forced a 10-second runoff and the clock would've expired.
Two or three years ago, the Huskers would've found a way to lose. Since then, past failure has become their 12th man, supplying them with extraordinary poise under pressure.
With six seconds left, Martinez hit Jamal Turner for the winner.
Compton — eyes closed, hands over ears — heard a noise behind him. Whaley grabbed him and jumped on him. Who caught it, Compton asked. Didn't matter.
They yelled and hugged and, afterward, they tried to find the words.
“I'm so excited, I can barely talk right now,” Whaley said, shaking his head. “Something's up. This season is definitely meant to be.”
After four seasons and nine games — after countless bold promises and hollow declarations — something on the Nebraska sideline is changing. Stand up and open your eyes.
Hope is beginning to look like belief.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain
>> Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the MSU game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the MSU game:
>> Video: NU's Jamal Turner after the MSU game: