EAST LANSING, Mich. — You want to know when Kenny Bell really thought Nebraska was going to win the game?
It was at a point when you were probably flipping over the nacho dip and screaming at your television set.
It was early in the fourth quarter Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Nebraska was down 10 points to Michigan State and running uphill with a boulder on its back.
Then Taylor Martinez fumbled. It was the death knell for sure. Three Spartan players were there. Surely one of them would recover it. None of them did.
Somehow, the ball almost bounced right back to Martinez. He didn’t get it, but offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles did.
“I was like, ‘Wow, someone’s looking out for us,’” Bell said.
And then it happened. Somehow, some way, Nebraska clawed back to beat Michigan State 28-24 and earn one of the more dramatic wins in Husker history.
You could almost hear the hoarse screaming back home when Jamal Turner picked a most opportune time to catch the first touchdown pass of his Husker career, toe tapping in the corner of the end zone with six seconds left.
Turner was overcome with emotion when he caught up with the guy who threw that pass.
“It wasn’t a celebration. It was more of a hug, I love you,” Turner said. “Me and Taylor are really close, really good friends. It was one of those things where we’re about to cry, almost, because we were just so proud of each other.”
A hug to end a wild day.
And Martinez forever seemed at the center of it all. The Husker quarterback made some big plays — a 71-yard touchdown run, a 35-yard touchdown run, a 33-yard pass to give him the school career total offense record. He made some bad plays — three picks, including one inside the Spartan 5-yard line in the fourth quarter that was returned the other way for an apparent touchdown by Spartan corner Darqueze Dennard.
But a penalty during Dennard’s return took away the touchdown.
Martinez and the Huskers still had life, even if the pulse seemed hard to detect at the time.
Through it all, teammates say the quarterback never wavered.
“Taylor’s always poised. You talk about a guy that has ice in his veins,” Bell said. “I’ve never seen Taylor wide-eyed or into the moment too much. He stays nice and relaxed. He told us that whole fourth quarter, ‘Hey, we’re going to go win this football game.’”
And so the Husker offense set about doing just that, driving 58 yards in six plays to cut the deficit to 24-21.
Martinez made it happen with his feet, ripping off a 35-yard score with seven minutes left.
“This is what champions do,” Martinez said. “Keep fighting.”
But it seemed like a losing fight when the Huskers couldn’t cash in on their next drive, failing on a fourth-and-9 at the Michigan State 44 with 3:12 left.
Fortunately for them, they had three timeouts in their back pocket. The Nebraska defense gave up 188 yards to MSU running back Le’Veon Bell, but got the stop when it needed it.
The Huskers got the ball back one more time. There was 1:20 left and they were 80 yards from glory.
What’d Nebraska players see from Martinez in that drive?
“Oh, heart, man. I see heart,” Turner said. "He was banged up and he led our team down the field.”
“Confidence,” Bell said. “I’ve heard that question so many times this year: What’s the difference between Taylor this year and last year? Confidence. It’s how he presents himself. He presents himself like a winner and he proved himself tonight.”
Martinez went to work on the first play, completing a 22-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa.
But nothing was easy, not on a day Martinez completed just 16 of 36 passes.
Nebraska gained no yards on the next three plays. Fourth-and-10. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called a timeout.
The Huskers took a breath, then Martinez hit Kyler Reed for 38 yards to the Spartan 20.
Now, the Huskers were not just thinking about tying the game in regulation. They were thinking about winning it.
Bell drew an pass-interference call — questionable as the call may have been — to help matters. That put the ball at the Spartan 5 with 17 seconds left.
No timeouts, though. Any play that fell short of the goal line and stayed in bounds would end the game.
“We knew exactly how we wanted to handle the situation,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “Obviously, I trust Taylor a lot to be able to manage that situation. He understands. We’ve been through that in practice. We’ve been there, done that.”
Doing it practice is one thing. Doing it with the lead in the Legends Division on the line is another.
Martinez missed hooking up with Reed on first down. Eleven seconds left.
Nebraska then called the same play it called against Michigan a week ago. Last week, Turner was wide-open but lost the ball in the lights because he wore a visor on his helmet.
No visor this time. Just a touchdown.
And a kiss on the quarterback’s cheek. That’s what Martinez received from safety P.J. Smith in the postgame interview room.
“The breaks we got and the plays we made toward the end of the game is a reflection of what we’ve been harping on all year about how we’ve grown as a team,” Bell said. “You put us in that situation last year or two years ago, and the outcome might not have been the same.”
Speaking about his quarterback, Pelini said Martinez “put the team on his back” at the end of the game. Martinez ended the game with 365 yards, including 205 rushing.
The coach showed emotion as he talked about the Huskers' will to win.
“I’ve been saying all along: This is a special group, great leadership and tremendous character,” Pelini said. “These kids want it bad. We don’t always play as smart as we need to play, but one thing you can’t question about the guys in that locker room behind me is their heart. Those kids play with heart.”