LINCOLN — Seems like Nebraska football has been here before. Where does this ring a bell? Home team falls way behind, seemingly left for dead, only to rally its way back to avoid what would have been a hard loss to swallow in Lincoln.
The Huskers were definitely in channeling mode against Wisconsin Saturday — perhaps rubbing that lucky shoe in the locker room a bit at halftime, hoping the ghosts of the Ohio State comeback would make a return to Memorial Stadium.
"We just couldn't execute," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said about NU's first-half struggles.
"There was talk on the sideline about the Ohio State game. We have been in the situation before. We had done it before and we could do it again."
Nebraska had to rally for what was the second-biggest comeback in school history, holding off Wisconsin for a 30-27 win.
The joint was as jacked up as you'll ever hear it at the start of what was to be Nebraska payback for an embarrassing night in Madison one season ago.
Too bad Wisconsin didn't get the memo.
It didn't take long before even the student section was sitting on its hands, and Nebraska's back was against the wall. The Badgers delivered the proverbial smack in the mouth early on and just kept swinging in the first half.
Nebraska was in trouble early in the second quarter against a club that was supposed to be struggling. A Martinez fumble to start the second half put NU in a deep 27-10 hole when the Badgers capitalized on a touchdown drive.
Maybe Lincoln is where Wisconsin's offense found a new identity, but on this night Nebraska showed an amazing resiliency in getting off the mat when a knockout was close at hand.
The Badgers were swinging like a prize fighter. Like Nebraska of old, Big Red owned the second half, outscoring UW 20-7 in the game's final 30 minutes.
This was supposed to be a Wisconsin team backed into a corner, down on its luck. In one half at Nebraska the defending Big Ten champs found something special in their young quarterback Joel Stave.
Nebraska found a big time need for character to rule the day.
Early in the season, Wisconsin fired its offensive line coach after rushing for just 35 yards against Oregon State on Sept. 8. Well, maybe Bret Bielema could have saved a lot of time by inserting that Stave guy from day one.
Stave had a lot of time to throw for much of the night. He was flat out deadly at times. The redshirt freshman burned the Husker defense deep, on the roll-out, and on a night that Martinez and the Nebraska offense kept shooting itself in the foot with costly turnovers.
This wasn't the same Wisconsin team that narrowly beat Northern Iowa. Even more clearly, this Nebraska team lost whatever good vibe it had barely halfway through the second quarter in its Big Ten opener.
It was a reality check on how difficult it is to step up to conference-level play, even against a Wisconsin team that obviously misses Russell Wilson.
Wisconsin's special teams were ferocious, its defense stout in the first half, and its offense insistent on running play action even when the running game wasn't budging.
Nebraska was disappointing in falling behind 20-3 early in the second quarter. Save for a touchdown drop on a play-action pass by Stave on a long ball to Monte Ball that faked out the entire Nebraska defense, the Badgers would have outright put it away before the end of the first half.
Though Stave was supposedly the big, slow guy the Nebraska defense typically eats for lunch, on this night the NU pass rush was non-existent early on.
NU was so insistent on stopping the run — and it did — that Stave was able to stand in the pocket for far too long. He finished with 161 yards and a touchdown pass in the first two quarters, but finished with just 214 yards total on a night that the Nebraska defense held the Badgers to just 56 yards on 41 carries.
Things were looking bleak. But this Nebraska team never quit. Its defense found life. Its quarterback found holes in the Wisconsin defense in the second half.
Nebraska's 93-yard scoring drive capped off by a 3-yard TD pass from Martinez to Burkhead was the only thing that kept NU's hopes alive near the end of the first half. It was that drive, Martinez said in the postgame, that allowed NU to find its groove on offense.
"Getting the momentum back on offense was the big thing," he said. "Once we could establish that we were fine. We put our defense in a tough position."
After Wisconsin capitalized on a Martinez fumble to make it 27-10 early in the second half, the junior kept Nebraska alive with a 38-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter to make it 27-17. Martinez then connected with tight end Kyler Reed on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 3:47 to play, making it 27-24. Nebraska came all the way back on the strength of two Brett Maher field goals.
Wow — Never thought we'd see that again.