This was the best worst best victory in a long, long time.
This was mourning to celebration, anxiety to relief, drinking to forget to a nightcap to calm down.
This was a downward spiral to quite possibly another season without a bowl game to a rejuvenated quarterback and offense and spirit to take forward.
And hello, victory No. 900, which came with as much dramatics and meaning as any in a long while.
You can’t overstate this: Down 14 in the second half to an Illinois team it was heavily favored to beat, Nebraska’s season was in serious trouble. The team psyche. Progress in Year 2. The whole kit and caboodle.
The Huskers didn’t just win a game, they saved their season.
That’s not to say Nebraska is about to go on a serious run. But a 3-1 record and comeback road victory — the first in two years, thank you — certainly beat the alternative.
This team is not out of the woods. But if the goal is to make a bowl game — and it is — three more wins is better than having to win four after you’ve made a mess of things.
Especially when you know you can fight.
The Huskers had 11 penalties and gave up four turnovers. Three of them put Illinois in business to score touchdowns. There was a blocked extra point and poor coverage on kicks.
Then there were the injuries. Running back Maurice Washington left, returned to play and finally left for good. JD Spielman and Dedrick Mills staggered to the sideline and kept coming back.
Illinois’ defense was flying around hitting like some of Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears’ defenses. It was a brutally physical game.
And if that wasn’t enough, Nebraska kept taking body shots from the replay booth. Does anybody know what a forward pass or a fumble is? Two plays that looked similar both went Illinois’ way.
And still, Nebraska clawed back and tied the game. And went ahead. And then protected that lead.
The Huskers did it by making plays, more plays than they’ve made all season.
In the process, they found the offense and quarterback they hoped they had back in the preseason.
That offense wasn’t perfect. Far from it. But there was a lot of it. And with quantity eventually came quality.
Nebraska ran 98 plays. Yes, 98. There were 690 yards. A running game, with the No. 1 back out, good for 363 yards. Eleven third-down conversions out of 19 tries. Thirty seven minutes of possession, which came in handy late as Illinois’ defense was huffing and puffing to the sidelines.
The Huskers were very much like a boxer staggering to the corner but also answering the bell. Time and again.
In the eye of this potential devastating loss, they found a calm resolve. They didn’t panic. They dug in and fought.
And they found their quarterback.
Nebraska’s offense was expected to fly out of the gate three weeks ago. But it didn’t happen. There were new parts, sure. But mainly, the main man didn’t look right. He wasn’t.
Martinez hasn’t been sharp, just off enough to make fans concerned. Coaches will tell you the sophomore has been pressing.
On a team with high expectations, too high in some areas, nobody represented the struggle to cope with those more than Martinez.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
Down 14 and the offense sputtering with turnovers and penalties, Martinez turned it up. He directed touchdown drives of nine, six and 11 plays. Then another 10-play drive to the Illinois 1 where NU missed a field goal that would have extended the lead to seven late.
Martinez threw for 327 yards (a 9.6 average) with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But he finally found his rhythm with his legs.
There were 18 carries for 118 yards (6.6 average). And most of those carries were straight-forward, tuck-the-ball, drop-the-head, here-I-come runs where Martinez was so, so good last year.
NU has missed that guy, and that dimension, in the offense this year. Where did it go? Who knows? Maybe it was defenses, maybe it was Martinez trying to be too good and not taking what was there.
When Martinez picked up a key first down on a quarterback draw, where he bulled through the middle, it felt like No. 2 had arrived for 2019.
But he certainly had company.
The offensive line gave Martinez unlimited time in the pocket. JD Spielman had seven catches for 159 yards, but it wasn’t the number of catches with Spielman, it was the number of times he got rattled by a safety, made the catch and got up for more.
It was the Wan’Dale Robinson Coming Out Party, and the freshman from Kentucky did everything but wear a lamp shade. Eight receptions at 9.9 yards per catch, and 19 rushes at running back, at 4.7 per rush.
Man, is it going to be fun to watch him grow up.
In a large way, we did on Saturday night. We saw this team grow a bunch.
There’s a lot to clean up, and a kicker to find. But the Huskers found they had some serious heart. That’s a good trade-off. And, in all, a good night.
1 of 51
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez runs in a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez signals a first down in the third quarter.
Illinois' Tony Adams tackles Nebraska's JD Spielman in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills celebrates scoring a fourth quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez. left, talks with Illinois' Reggie Corbin at the end of the game.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills scores a fourth quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez, left, goes for two to tie the game at 35 as Illinois' Jartavius Martin defends in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez breaks a tackle from Illinois' Oluwole Betiku Jr. in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois's Jartavius Martin scoops up a fumble from Nebraska's Dedrick Mills in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Caleb Tannor, left, breaks up a pass intended for Illinois' Josh Imatorbhebhe in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson, left, and Marquel Dismuke, right, try to bring down Illinois' Reggie Corbin in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Maurice Washington leaps over Illinois' Jake Hansen on a five-yard run late in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll scores a first quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt intercepts a pass intended for Illinois' Daniel Barker in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson, top, is upended by Illinois' Sydney Brown in the first quarter. Robinson held onto the ball for the reception.
Illinois' Kerby Joseph, left, drags Nebraska's Maurice Washington out of bounds in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson breaks a tackle from Illinois; Nolan Bernat to score a touchdown in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll, front, celebrates scoring a first quarter touchdown with teammate Austin Allen.
Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt intercepts a pass intended for Illinois' Daniel Barker, right, in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills. center left, fumbles the football in the second quarter.
Nebraska's JD Spielman runs after making a catch on Nebraska's opening drive as Illinois' Sydney Brown pursues at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks a pass away from JD Spielman on Nebraska's opening drive at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks Nebraska's Dedrick Mills out of bounds in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Reggie Corbin scores on a 66-yard run on the opening drive against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Kurt Rafdal warms up before the start of the Nebraska-Illinois football game.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez throws the ball around after arriving at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Nebraska's Austin Allen warms up before the start of the Illinois football game.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez warms up before the start of the Illinois football game.
Sarah Sindelar, left, and Ryan Ossell wait under a tree before the start of Nebraska-Illinois game in Champaign, Illinois.
Aaron Hall, left, and his son Landon, 7, wait for the start of the Nebraska-Illinois game outside Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Aaron is originally from Fremont, Nebraska, but now lives in St Louis. This will be Landon's first Husker game.
A sign at Memorial Stadium in Champaign shows the distance from the stadium to the other stadiums in the Big 10.
Nebraska fans cheer as the buses carrying the Nebraska football team arrive at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Nebraska fan Noah Ross walks to Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, to see the Huskers take on Illinois. Ross is from the Quad Cities.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson arrives at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, for the football game against Illinois.
Nebraska fans wait outside of the stadium for the Nebraska football team to arrive at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks a pass away from JD Spielman on Nebraska's opening drive at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez runs for 18 yards as Illinois' Tarique Barnes tackles him late in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills stiff-arms Illinois' Sydney Brown while scoring a touchdown with about 2 minutes left in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez breaks for a long run ahead of Illinois' Jartavius Martin in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Brenden Jaimes blocks Illinois' Ayo Shogbonyo in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson gets hoisted by Matt Farniok after scoring against Illinois.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters throws a pass against Nebraska in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost talks to his team during a timeout in the fourth quarter against Illinois.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson celebrates the win over Illinois.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches Lane McCallum attempt a fourth quarter field goal against Illinois.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez tries to slip a tackle from Delano Ware.
Illinois' Lovie Smith coaches against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Illinois' Lovie Smith talks to the officials after they waved off a block-in-the-back call against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Lane McCallum misses a fourth quarter field goal against Illinois as Isaac Armstrong holds at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost celebrates the Huskers' victory against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost hugs Miles Jones after the Huskers defeated Illinois at Illinois' Memorial Stadium.