>> Video Below: Bo Pelini, Taylor Martinez and others after the Penn State game
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LINCOLN — Another day, another deficit, another comeback, another win. Nebraska football could market its sweet-and-sour sauce of first-half malfunctions and second-half heroics and sell it on store shelves.
But NU's 32-23 win Saturday over Penn State came with its own unique spices.
Three forced turnovers. Third-down efficiency. Two touchdowns into a fierce southern wind. A timely fourth-quarter punt. And even the suggestion of conspiracy on a “bang-bang” play that could change the complexion of this still-developing rivalry.
The bottom line: The Huskers stayed tied with Michigan for the Legends Division lead, which is to say they're still in the driver's seat, since Nebraska owns the tiebreaker over the Wolverines.
The march to a Big Ten title game survives another harrowing chapter. Nebraska now leads the nation with double-digit comebacks, as the Penn State win joins victories over Wisconsin (17-point deficit), Northwestern (12) and Michigan State (10).
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“That's four down,” said Husker coach Bo Pelini, now openly referencing the “win out” challenge he posed to his team in early October. “We've got two more to go.”
The Huskers (8-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten) spotted the Nittany Lions a 20-6 halftime lead — for which Pelini took the brunt of the blame because he failed to get defensive calls in quickly enough against PSU's up-tempo NASCAR offense, which gained 255 yards in the first half.
“I wish I wouldn't have put them in a couple of situations,” said Pelini, who dialed up several early blitzes at Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin to little avail. I-back Ameer Abdullah added that Nebraska “wasn't very hyped” before the game — a change, he said, from the team being too nervous.
So the Huskers sputtered twice in the red zone, picked up five penalties, shanked three punts and saw Penn State's punter — one of the nation's worst — kick for a 47.5 average. And senior Tim Marlowe fumbled a punt, too.
Pelini's halftime speech?
“We've been through worse,” he told reporters with conviction.
NU didn't wait until the fourth quarter to launch its comeback. Against a wind gusting to 35 mph, the Huskers scored two touchdowns — both Imani Cross short-yardage runs — in fewer than six minutes. The second score was set up by Daimion Stafford's interception, which he returned to the Nittany Lion 4.
Nebraska's own fast-paced tempo — heavy with toss plays to Abdullah — wore on the Nittany Lions. So did quarterback Taylor Martinez's third-down magic tricks. NU converted 9 of 18, most through Martinez scrambles or throws.
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“Taylor played his butt off,” Pelini said.
Though Martinez lost a fumble near the goal line at the start of the fourth quarter, the Husker defense immediately got a stop, and he saved two of his best passes for the game-winning drive that followed. He hit tight end Kyler Reed up the seam for a 56-yard gain and slot receiver Jamal Turner on a 5-yard slant for a touchdown. Martinez — who passed for 171 yards — made both throws against a blitz.
“They dial it up to try to confuse him,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We saw a lot of different stuff. Storms, strong, weak, corner cats. We saw all kinds of things.”
The 85,527 fans at Memorial Stadium wouldn't see a good replay of the game's deciding moment.
On its ensuing drive, Penn State marched to NU's 3-yard line, where McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman on a short pass. Lehman stretched for the goal line. Linebacker David Santos punched the ball loose. Stafford recovered. Referees ruled it a fumble.
ABC replays not shown on HuskerVision split observers in the press box — and surely fans of both teams back home. Did the tip of the football break the goal-line plane before Santos knocked it out?
“The ruling on the field was a fumble short of the goal line,” referee John O'Neill said in a statement. “It went to replay, and the replay official said the play stood based on the views he had. It's ultimately his decision.”
McGloin suggested afterward that the Nittany Lions would not “get that call ever, against any team.” Later in the game itself, McGloin took his helmet off to scream at a referee for an intentional grounding call that resulted in a PSU safety.
Reporters then asked coach Bill O'Brien if the Big Ten is trying to make Penn State lose.
“We don't feel like anyone is out to get us,” he said.
Pelini hadn't seen a replay of the fumble when asked how close Lehman might have been to a touchdown.
“One thing that helps you in that situation is how they called it on the field,” Pelini said. “You have to have indisputable evidence to overrule it. Something that is that bang-bang ends up going however they ruled it on the field. We were kind of fortunate there.”
And fortunate that punter Brett Maher found his cannon leg at the right time. He hit a 69-yarder that flipped the field and set up McGloin's intentional grounding penalty that gave NU a 29-23 lead. Penn State got one final drive, but turned it over on downs after four plays.
Even with the controversial fumble, the second half told a different story than the first. Nebraska outgained Penn State 250-136 over the final 30 minutes, and McGloin completed only 8 of 19 passes. NU settled into more of its base coverage defense, which took away shorter routes. McGloin, throwing into a fourth-quarter wind, couldn't compensate with arm strength.
The Huskers now enter the softer portion of their Big Ten schedule, finishing with Minnesota — whose 6-4 record is buoyed by a weak nonconference slate — and 4-6 Iowa, which remains on one of the worst slides of Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Can Nebraska reverse its trend of slow starts and dramatic returns? Abdullah and Martinez hope so.
“Enough already,” Martinez said.
“I'm sick of it,” Abdullah said.
Pelini offered a suggestion.
“I'm going to call the Big Ten Conference and spot (the opponent) 14,” he joked. “And then we're good to go. That's about what we have to do.”
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>> Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:
>> NU's Taylor Martinez after the Penn State game:
>> NU's Brett Maher after the Penn State game:
>> Rich Kaipust's postgame analysis: