Scott Frost

This was the 900th victory in the history of Husker football, but it might be one of the most memorable in the coaching career of Scott Frost.

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.

Nebraska 42, Illinois 38. How did that happen?

Hello, ESPN “GameDay.” Hello, Ohio State Buckeyes.

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.

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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.

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