LINCOLN — After losing to Ohio State by 30 points on Oct. 6, Bo Pelini said Nebraska needed to win out.
The head coach didn't probably envision his Huskers doing it this way.
No. 18 Nebraska completed its third double-digit comeback in four weeks and captured its fourth straight win by downing Penn State 32-23 Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
After rallying from 10 points last week to beat Michigan State and from 12 points three weeks ago to beat Northwestern, the Huskers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) overcame a horrid first half that put them in a 20-6 hole going into the locker room.
"I told the team we've been here before," Pelini said. "We've been in worse situations than this to start the second half. In the back of my mind, I was hoping we could get back to even by the fourth quarter. ...
"There's never a sense of panic in these guys."
Nebraska also trailed 23-20 entering the fourth quarter, but the Huskers scored the final 12 points of the game — on a touchdown, safety and field goal.
"We have a lot of heart," said NU quarterback Taylor Martinez, who finished 12-of-20 passing for 171 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 104 yards. "We know we can come back,"
With Michigan beating Northwestern in overtime just before NU's game started, the win over Penn State (6-4, 4-2) became critical for the Huskers in their quest to win the Big Ten title.
Nebraska, looking for its first conference championship since 1999, remains tied with Michigan (7-3, 5-1) atop the Big Ten Legends Division. The Huskers still control their destiny with two games remaining, holding the tiebreaker over the Wolverines after beating them earlier this season.
Nebraska didn't get off to the best start Saturday, falling behind 7-0 less than two minutes into the game. Late in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions appeared on the verge of taking a 14-3 lead. But they lost a fumble inside the NU 10-yard line, and the Huskers went on to kick a field goal on the ensuing drive to get within 7-6.
Penn State scored the next 13 points in the second quarter with a strong south wind at its back, taking a 20-6 lead into halftime, marking the fifth time in the last six games Nebraska trailed by at least 10 points in the second half,
Going against the wind, Nebraska got the start to the second half it needed to have a chance at a comeback — going 75 yards in yards plays to get within 20-13.
Nebraska then got an interception by Daimion Stafford that was returned to the PSU 4-yard line. Two plays later and the game was tied, just 5:23 into the second half.
"To pull even within the first six minutes was big for us psychologically," Pelini said. "That help us. It was big."
Penn State regained the lead on a field goal, but Nebraska took its first lead of the game 27-23 four minutes into the fourth quarter on a Jamal Turner touchdown reception. It was a lead the Huskers would not relinquish.
The Nittany Lions appeared to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, but tight end Matt Lehman fumbled just as he was crossing the goal line and the Huskers recovered the ball in the end zone. The play was reviewed, but the ruling on the field stood.
"We were kind of fortunate they called it that way on the field," Pelini
Then, following a 69-yard punt by Brett Maher that gave PSU the ball at its own 2-yard line, Nebraska got a safety when Nittany Lion quarterback Matt McGloin was whistled for intentional grounding in the end zone. That gave Nebraska a 29-23 lead with five minutes remaining in the game. The Huskers tacked on Maher field with 23 seconds remaining to seal the win.
When asked what Nebraska needed to do to have a better first half, Pelini chuckled: "I'm going to call the Big Ten Conference and tell them to spot the other team 14 points. That's about what we have to do."
Nebraska finished with 438 total yards, 250 of which came after halftime. The Huskers had 267 yards on the ground, as Ameer Abdullah joined Martinez as a 100-yard rusher with 116 yards on 31 carries.
Nebraska held the Nittany Lions to 136 yards in the second half after the they had 255 in the first half.
"I thought we did some really good things," Pelini said when asked about the second-half performance. "There's a lot to clean up in every regard. I just think there's still a lot out there for this football team."