STILLWATER, Okla. -- Nebraska defensive end Pierre Allen had exited with a sprained knee. Left tackle Jeremiah Sirles limped off after rolling an ankle. Linebacker Lavonte David needed to come out for a spell after being flattened.

And with Oklahoma State twice rallying from eight-point deficits to grab a 27-24 lead, this little band box called Boone Pickens Stadium was starting to rock.

Nebraska's nation-best, 14-game streak of not giving up more than 21 points? Gone with 5:59 remaining in the first half.

That's exactly when the Huskers proved OSU coach Mike Gundy to be prophetic.

"The true-tell sign with what a man is made of is during difficult times," Gundy said.

Because of how the Huskers answered those times, the ball's now in Oklahoma State's court.

Challenged by the Cowboys' up-tempo offense -- and perhaps the hard-to-swallow memory of last week's loss to Texas -- the Huskers turned up the focus instead of their anxiety and improved their Big 12 North Division aspirations with a 51-41 victory that wasn't that close.

And though he wouldn't say it, the look on Bo Pelini's face let you know this was one of the more satisfying wins in his young career.

Pelini, as you know, enjoys a good scrap. And on Saturday, his team definitely had been backed into a corner by the relentless running of Kendall Hunter (who finished with 201 yards) and the pass-catching abilities of Justin Blackmon (157 yards) and Josh Cooper (103).

"We talked about it going into the game, no matter what happens, you've got to keep fighting. You've got to pick up the guy next to you and the guy next to him, and no matter what, make some plays," Pelini said. "Everybody in the game had their mistakes, I promise you, but everybody in that game that played today made some plays and did some things to help us win."

In Allen's absence, Nebraska called on redshirt freshman Jason Ankrah and sophomore Josh Williams. They made just one tackle between them but didn't give up any plays that allowed Oklahoma State's orange-clad fans to turn this thing into a wild Halloween party.

David shook off his dings.

Meanwhile, Yoshi Hardrick, seeing his most significant action of the season, was part of a line that protected Taylor Martinez.

Martinez, sacked just once, tossed five TD passes and finished with 435 yards in total offense (third-highest in NU history).

"I knew it was going to be a shootout and the toughest team was going to win," Hardrick said.

"When they took the lead, we could've wilted under the pressure, but we didn't," receiver Mike McNeill said. "One thing I've noticed about this team is we stay calm. Not that we want to get behind, but we've grown and matured."

To wit: Oklahoma State got the ball back after taking its only lead, but NU forced a punt for the first time since the opening series and drove for a TD to go up 31-27 at halftime.

The Huskers then marched 80 yards for a score to open the second half, forced another punt and found the end zone for a third straight series to go up 14 points.

The Cowboys came back with a touchdown, and their defense gave them a chance to get closer. But the Blackshirts responded with back-to-back three-and-outs, and the offense tacked on 10 more points.

Game over.

"Coach Pelini prepared us for this kind of game," said senior receiver Niles Paul, whose 131 yards showed his mental toughness following an anguishing performance against Texas."The type of team we've got -- and the coaches -- I'm so proud of all the guys for what they did today."

Pelini seconded that notion.

"You've got to do whatever it takes to win the game. I thought our kids had the right mind-set," he said. "We started to get a little wide-eyed in that first half, and things started reeling a little bit. The guys got their composure back together and kept fighting. I give them a lot of credit for reacting the way they did."

It wasn't a perfect performance by any means -- but an impressive example of yeoman's work.

More than that, it showed how much these guys hate losing.

"As a group, as a program, I really did think we needed to win," Sirles said. "I think it just shows the heart of our team."

Reach Curt McKeever at cmckeever@journalstar.com or 402-473-7441.