Taylor Martinez was reliving the same nightmare from last season against Wisconsin.
Nebraska’s quarterback threw three interceptions, completing only 50 percent of his passes last season in a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin in Madison. Saturday, the Husker quarterback took his first snap of the game and fumbled it.
Martinez fell on the ball, but the play left Nebraska with a 2nd-and-long it couldn’t escape, and the drive stalled after three plays. On the next offensive possession, I-back Rex Burkhead fumbled on the first play.
Just four offensive snaps into the game, Nebraska had already given up 14 points, due mostly to offensive follies.
“Our guys dug as deep a hole as we could in the first half,” said offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Husker running back Ameer Abdullah sparked the team with an 83-yard kickoff return on the next play, but the offense stalled, with Martinez bobbling and recovering another of his own fumbles. Martinez’s confidence was beginning to take a hit.
“He’s never really panicky, but we felt like he was that way,” said wide receiver Jamal Turner. “We felt like he was that way though and we tried to talk to him, even though it may not be something he wants to hear from us. We just said, ‘Hey we love ya. Let’s go. Calm down and just relax. Breathe and we’ll get through this.’
“We were just trying to keep our quarterback calm. We needed to let him know that we were still going to follow him. Pick it up, make the right reads and we’ll win this game.”
The team trailed 20-3 in a game that was beginning to feel more and more like last year’s loss to the Badgers. Nebraska was pinned at its own 7 yard line in what looked like another doomed drive.
But Martinez stepped up.
It started with a 10-yard pass to tight end Ben Cotton, then snowballed – a 14-yard strike to Kenny Bell and his own 12-yard scamper – Martinez was starting to string together a drive. He chipped away, and three small dump-offs to Abdullah built up 22 yards of progress.
Then, on a second down with 6 yards to go, Martinez took off, racking up 20 more yards, breathing more life into a seemingly dead Husker offense. Two plays later, he dumped off a pass to Rex Burkhead for a touchdown.
“The reason why we got stopped was because we couldn’t establish a rhythm,” Martinez said. “I think once we established that then we really had them.”
“(Martinez) did a tremendous job that whole charge just kind of leading us down the field,” Burkhead said. “When you get a big play like that, you get the crowd into the game.”
That 12-play, 93-yard drive began to shift the momentum in Memorial Stadium. Martinez wasn’t making mistakes anymore. He was taking charge.
The third quarter was key. Martinez had to play mistake-free, he had to manage the game so the team could be in position to win.
But things didn’t go quite according to plan, and Martinez lost a fumble on the team’s opening drive, resulting in a Wisconsin touchdown. His job wasn’t getting any easier.
In the third quarter, with his team trailing by three scores, NU’s QB, wearing jersey No. 3, fumbled the ball for the third time. The third-year starter, instead of collapsing under the stress, harnessed that energy and reversed his fortune.
“Taylor will be the first to tell you that he didn’t have a great game,” Beck said. “But good quarterbacks find a way to win when they don’t have great games.”
Immediately after his final fumble, Martinez orchestrated a 4-play, 77-yard drive, ending in a 38-yard touchdown run to shrink Wisconsin’s lead to 10.
“He ran probably as physical as I’ve seen him run since he’s been here,” Beck said. “He found a way to win the game for us and help us win. That’s what a good quarterback does even when they don’t play good.”
The next drive, Martinez and the Huskers charged down to the Wisconsin 10 yard line after 65 yards of work. On a key third down and 4, Martinez squeezed a ball into a tight window, finding tight end Kyler Reed for a touchdown.
“That throw to Kyler Reed for a touchdown was beautiful,” Beck said. “He put that right in there. He made some big plays for us when we needed him to.”
With the game tied, following a Brett Maher field goal, Martinez was trying to lead the Huskers downfield to take the lead in the fourth quarter, when Abdullah fumbled the football.
Martinez, who was trailing Abdullah, scooped up the ball, and darted down the sideline for an additional 9 yards to pick up the first down.
“That was a big play,” Beck said. “It would’ve put us at 3rd and 5 and he scooped it up and we got a first down on it.”
Big play after big play, Martinez redeemed himself. While he had few shining moments passing the ball, he had fewer memorable mistakes, like his three interceptions last season against the Badgers. Martinez was playing smart, and he was leading his team to victory.
The same drive that Abdullah nearly gave the ball up, the Huskers managed to drive into field goal range, with Maher’s leg finally propelling Nebraska past Wisconsin on the scoreboard at 30-27.
A stifling series by the Husker defense locked in the win. Nebraska had its revenge; Martinez had his redemption.
The nightmare was over.