EVANSTON, Ill. – P.J. Smith saw it coming. He saw it coming even when there perhaps seemed little reason for him to see it coming.
The Huskers were down 12 points and had run out of feet to shoot. Time was against them. They were staring down the barrel of a third loss, the kind of loss that would have come with a cyclone of negativity.
But it was about then that Smith, a senior safety, sought out Taylor Martinez on the sideline.
“I went to Taylor and said, “Hey, bring us home,’” Smith said. “I told him, ‘You go down there and score. And then we’re gonna get the ball back, then you’re gonna score again.’”
What was the junior quarterback to say to that?
Well, most know by now Martinez is often a man of few words. And this occasion was no different.
I got you.
“I got you. That’s exactly what he told me,” Smith said. “He went down there and brought us home.”
Yes, it played out just as Smith envisioned.
Two fourth-quarter touchdown drives led by Martinez, sandwiched around one monster defensive stop, and Nebraska had done it, surviving for a 29-28 win against Northwestern in a game where surviving probably should not have been necessary.
When you outgain your foe 543-301, as Nebraska did Saturday at Ryan Field, rarely do you have to eke out a one-point victory and rely on answered prayers for a missed field goal in the final minutes.
Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien had the distance on a 53-yard kick, but not the aim, missing it wide-right with 1:10 left. He'd come into the game 11-for-11 on field goals this season.
“I thought it went in,” said Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “I had to wait to see what the referees did. He hit well. I thought it was going in. And when it didn’t, it was kind of a surreal feeling.”
It had been more of an ill feeling for much of the game.
While the much-maligned Husker defense came to play, it was the offense and special teams that couldn’t get out of their own way.
By halftime, the Huskers had already lost three fumbles -- two on mishandled punts -- and trailed 14-10 despite outgaining Northwestern 226-107.
“We know that our penalties and turnovers have always haunted us, and it was happening to us again,” senior wide receiver Tim Marlowe said. “But you know, we’re very strong mentally. This offseason we worked on stopping the snowball effect … and we did that. We didn’t let our mistakes take over our mind.”
Yet it was the kind of half that couldn’t help but remind Martinez and coach Bo Pelini of last year’s game vs. Northwestern in Lincoln, when Nebraska fumbled and bumbled to a loss.
“A weird first half,” Martinez said.
Still, for all the miscues -- including a personal-foul penalty on Daimion Stafford that negated a Husker fumble recovery at the Northwestern 11-yard line, and an illegal-formation penalty that erased a 34-yard third-down catch by Jamal Turner -- Pelini said he always thought his team could pull it out.
“There’s no doubt I thought they had it in them,” Pelini said. “But I was afraid we were going to run out of time at one point.”
That point wasn’t specified, but it was likely around the time Northwestern finished an 11-play, 52-yard drive to make it 28-16 with 8:31 left.
Bleak, and then some.
But Martinez went to work, putting together two of the best drives of his career in one of the best games of his career.
The Huskers worked quickly, driving 80 yards in 10 plays, a leaping catch in the end zone by Taariq Allen cutting into the deficit with 5:55 remaining.
“Everyone knew we were going to score a touchdown,” Martinez said. “We could feel it in our guts and throughout the offense. We knew once we had the chance, we were going to score again.”
After Allen's touchdown catch, the Husker fans, who outnumbered Wildcat fans, made themselves heard.
A road game turned into a home game. Northwestern was forced to use a silent count on offense on its own field.
Smith and his defensive teammates lived up to their end of the bargain, forcing a three-and-out. It was the 10th time the Husker defense registered a three-and-out Saturday.
Martinez wasted no time from there. A 31-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa … a 5-yarder to Kenny Bell … 6-yarder to Enunwa …. a 25-yarder to Jamal Turner.
Ball at the Northwestern 7.
Pelini tried to call a timeout.
"Tim (Beck) liked the call initially and then he didn't like the (defensive) look,” Pelini said.
But the snap came before officials recognized that Pelini wanted a timeout.
“Glad I didn’t get it,” the coach said.
Martinez to Ben Cotton in the back of the end zone.
The senior tight end let out a primal scream.
Old P.J. had called it.
While elated to snap a four-game losing road streak, Pelini and the Huskers were quick to recognize the slop that had almost brought them despair.
Michigan’s next. Clean-up is needed.
“I firmly believe we can win them all,” Pelini said. “We can play with anybody we play, but we can’t do the things we did today.”