Published November 11, 2012
LINCOLN, Neb. – Style points are the last thing Nebraska cares about right now.
If it takes second-half comebacks — or perhaps a fortuitous call on an opponent's end-zone fumble — to keep the 16th-ranked Cornhuskers on track for the Big Ten Legends Division title, they aren't sweating it. They embrace it.
Nebraska (8-2, 5-1) erased a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Penn State 32-23 Saturday, the Huskers' fourth come-from-behind win in six games.
"Say whatever you want about the Big Ten Conference," receiver Kenny Bell said, "but to win the four games we just won in the fashion that we won them, with the mental toughness we displayed, I'm really proud of this football team. You talk Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State. That's one heck of a gauntlet of a schedule to get those four, and to be sitting where we want right now is nice."
A win at home this week against Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) and one at Iowa (4-6, 2-4) the day after Thanksgiving would let the Huskers make good on coach Bo Pelini's public challenge to win out after that blowout loss at Ohio State on Oct. 6.
Michigan has the same conference record as Nebraska, but the Huskers own the head-to-head tie-breaker and have the inside track to playing Leaders champ Wisconsin for the Big Ten title Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
"We talked about what we needed to do to get to Indy, and that's four down," Pelini said. "We've got two more to go. Just have to stay the course."
Since North Carolina State pulled off the feat six times in 2000, only Nebraska and two other teams (2008 Arkansas, 2005 UCLA) have come back from four second-half deficits of 10 or more points to win, according to STATS LLC.
The breaks have seemed to go the Huskers' way the last three games.
In the 23-9 win over Michigan, their only Big Ten victory that didn't require a comeback, the Wolverines lost star quarterback Denard Robinson to an elbow injury after they had driven inside the 10-yard line late in the second quarter. Michigan trailed just 7-3 at the time. After Robinson went out, the Wolverines did next to nothing offensively.
In the 28-24 win at Michigan State, the Huskers in the last minute went from trying to set up for a tying field goal to being put in position to win in regulation. That's because Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard was flagged for a questionable pass interference with 17 seconds left. Even Bell, the receiver on the play, acknowledged he thought Dennard did nothing wrong. The Huskers scored the winning touchdown with six seconds left.
In Saturday's win over Penn State, officials ruled that Nittany Lions tight end Matt Lehman fumbled before he crossed the goal line in the middle of the fourth quarter. A video review didn't change the call, though that judgment was questioned by Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira and others. Instead of the Lions getting a touchdown to retake the lead, Nebraska got a touchback.
"We got very fortunate on the one where they fumbled at the half-inch line," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "When that happened, you know things are going your way."
If anyone suggests the Huskers are lucky this year, Papuchis doesn't want to hear it.
He pointed to instances of the breaks going against the Huskers, particularly in 2009.
That was the year Virginia Tech set up the go-ahead touchdown in a one-point win with an 81-yard pass in the last minute, when Nebraska committed eight turnovers in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State and when Nebraska lost the Big 12 championship game 13-12 after officials put one second back on the clock to allow Texas to kick the winning field goal.
"I don't think we got a lot of luck before," Papuchis said. "I didn't blame it on bad luck. So when we win, I'm not going to say it's luck."
Whether it's luck, karma or something else, the Huskers don't believe they can be stopped now.
"The pedal is all the way down, whether it's the last four games we played or the next two," Bell said. "The expectation is to win. We don't exhale or take a deep breath now because that leads to losses. We've got three more weeks and then we can take a take a break when we get that month off before we go to the Rose Bowl."