EVANSTON, Ill. — One last stop.
The Nebraska defense, all but left for dead after a poor performance two weeks ago against Ohio State, made three key stops in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 29-28 come-from-behind win against Northwestern.
“I was confident we were going to get stops,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I kind of wish we had gotten a first down at the end so we didn’t have to put our D on the field again. I thought I was going to throw up.”
Nebraska players and fans were feeling pretty nauseous with NU trailing 28-16 midway through the fourth quarter. But then Taylor Martinez led the Huskers on a scoring drive to pull to 28-23 with 5:55 to play.
Stop No. 1 was required.
“The guys kept coming over to the sideline saying, ‘We’re gonna stop them,'” Papuchis said.
Northwestern took over at its 21-yard line and gained just 6 yards on three plays. On third-and-4, Ciante Evans’ tight coverage on Kain Colter forced an incomplete pass.
Martinez led the Huskers on a go-ahead scoring drive, but the two-point conversion failed and Nebraska led 29-28 with 2:08 to play.
On Northwestern's next possession, the Huskers gave up a 24-yard pass play and the Wildcats had first-and-10 at the Nebraska 37.
“The coaches tell us that things are gonna happen, teams out there are gonna make plays,” Husker safety P.J. Smith said. “We just have to move on to the next play, and all the guys did that.”
On third-and-7, Smith broke up a pass to force a 53-yard field-goal attempt. The ball was barely wide-right.
That was stop No. 2.
The Huskers couldn’t pick up a first down to end the game, so Brett Maher punted and the defense was called upon one more time with eight seconds left. Will Compton broke up a pass on first down. With three seconds left, Colter lined up at quarterback and started running around trying to create a miracle.
Finally, cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptist made the last of his five pass breakups, and time ran out.
Stop No. 3. Ball game.
For the Husker defenders, who looked dazed and confused two weeks ago against Ohio State, the three stops were all about resiliency.
“In a 150-play football game, there’s going to be bad things that happen,” Papuchis said. “Sometimes it’s something good they did, sometimes it’s something you do to yourself. We fumbled two punt returns, we gave up that long run. But at the end of the day, it’s how you respond to those things. Our guys responded really, really well.”
Smith, who shared the team lead with eight tackles, said he and his teammates shook off the mistakes they made, and that was the difference.
“When we gave up that 80-yard run, we came to the sideline and laughed,” Smith said. “We knew we messed that play up. I said, “Hey, guys, let it go.’ That’s how it was all night. That first TD (a 10-yard pass) that I gave up, my teammates said, ‘P.J., let it go,’ I said, ‘I‘m not worried about it, we’re gonna win this game.’”
The Husker defense started fast, holding Northwestern to just one first down in the game’s first quarter and a half.
“We had confidence from the first play … matter of fact, we had confidence before we came into this state to do what we needed to do,” Smith said. “We gave up a few plays here and there, but that’s how the game goes. They are D-I players too, they’re gonna make plays. We have to stay the course and just keep playing.”
The final numbers show an interesting story for the Husker defense. They gave up that 80-yard scoring run and lost a couple of one-on-one battles on passes that led to big plays. But of 19 Northwestern possessions, Nebraska forced a three-and-out on 11 of them. The Wildcats, who piled up 468 yards in last year’s win at Lincoln, managed just 301 Saturday, and 80 of those came on the one play.