Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, 9.29.2012

Harvey Jackson celebrates after recovering a fumble to clinch a 30-27 win over Wisconsin.

GWYNETH ROBERTS/Lincoln Journal Star

Never a dull moment.

Say this for Bo Pelini and his program: They keep things lively.

They played horribly in the first half Saturday night, falling behind by 10 points amid a flurry of mistakes, and eventually trailed by 17 early in the third quarter.

No sweat.

Nebraska, with the help of brute strength in the trenches, cleaned up its act and scored the game's final 20 points to overcome Wisconsin 30-27 before 85,962 fans at Memorial Stadium.

"The wheels didn't come off, as some of you like to say," Pelini said in the post-mortem.

Yeah, Pelini was defiant. It was a Bo moment. Let him have the moment. He earned it. His program earned it. His players and staff "stayed the course," he said.

"No one panicked," Pelini said. "Everyone stayed together and made adjustments."

Maybe you saw an example of Pelini's fifth-year program maturing. Refusing to panic. Refusing to lose. 

Nebraska really couldn't afford to lose. Yeah, it was the Big Ten opener. I have a hard time calling any league opener a "must-win situation." On the other hand, NU next heads to Ohio State, where it'll be an underdog — a decided underdog if it plays like it did during the first 30 minutes against Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten).

Lose to Wisconsin, and the vocal minority in the Nebraska fan base would've come unhinged.

You see how thin the line is. With the victory, coupled with Legends Division rival Michigan State's loss to Ohio State, 22nd-ranked Nebraska picks up a sizeable dose of early momentum. The Huskers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) look equipped to challenge for the league title — at least they did in the second half.

In that final 30 minutes, Nebraska showed signs of being ready to take the proverbial next step as a program — win the conference and reach a BCS bowl.

In the first 30 minutes, Nebraska fans' skepticism was as thick as a Wisconsin offensive lineman, and rightfully so.

In the first 30 minutes, images of the loss to Texas in 2010 flashed through Nebraska fans' craniums.

You could hear the grumbling in the stands.

It's not hard to imagine what was said.

"Bo can't win the big ones."

"Bo's teams tighten under the bright lights."

"What happened to Bo's defense?"

They were all legitimate comments.

Then, suddenly, they were all wiped away.

"Contrary to what you guys think, I haven't forgotten how to coach defense and stop the run," Pelini said defiantly.

Wisconsin rushed 18 times for 12 yards in the second half. Nebraska defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebacker Will Compton led a front seven that has been roundly criticized since August. Criticism came from this corner of the press box. Baker and the boys stifled that noise, at least for a week.

Barney Cotton, the veteran Nebraska offensive line coach, has been a favorite whipping boy of the fan base. His guys dug in deep against a stout Wisconsin run defense, helping the Huskers rush 46 times for 259 yards, or 5.6 per carry.

In the second half, NU rushed 29 times for 191 yards.

"I think we showed we're capable of being very physical up front on both sides of the ball," Pelini said.

Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said earlier in the week this game would be won (or lost) in the trenches. Wisconsin likes to slug it out in the interior. Nebraska slugged back.

"That's a hell of a Big Ten game," Kaczenski said. "What an environment."

What a mess in the first half. Nebraska looked destined for misery in the first quarter when steady Rex Burkhead fumbled because he ran into an offensive lineman.

Badger receivers were outfighting Husker defensive backs for the ball.

There was a bad mental breakdown, when a Husker was called for roughing the Wisconsin punter.

There were too many breakdowns to count — that's not an exaggeration.

Then there was a second-half rally that evoked memories of Nebraska's comeback win last season against Ohio State. Only this was different. The Huskers basically put their heads down and ground out this win — a victory the Huskers needed badly at the start of a rugged stretch.

After playing Ohio State, Nebraska goes to Northwestern, plays Michigan at home, then goes back on the road to Michigan State.

There won't be many dull moments.

There will be plenty of fistfights.

That's the way Pelini described Saturday's game. His team absorbed its share of punches, yet kept swinging. It didn't panic. Maybe it's a sign of a program maturing. The Huskers certainly showed a hard edge, taking on a characteristic of their defiant head coach.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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