LINCOLN, NEB. (AP) - Nebraska might look back on its record-setting comeback win over Ohio State as the game that saved its season.
A week after a 31-point loss at Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers trailed by 21 points in the third quarter before they won 34-27 Saturday night in the greatest comeback in program history.
With a challenging schedule in their inaugural Big Ten season, an 0-2 start in league play would have been devastating for the preseason pick to win the Legends Division.
The Huskers (5-1, 1-1), who remained No. 14 in The Associated Press Top 25 and a game behind Michigan in the division, have an open date this week before they go to struggling Minnesota on Oct. 22.
Home games against No. 23 Michigan State and Northwestern follow. Back-to-back road games against Penn State and No. 11 Michigan precede Iowa’s Thanksgiving weekend visit.
“Our football team is ready for a bye,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think they need a break, mentally and physically.”
Ohio State (3-3, 0-2) probably would like to get away from the stress and strain of the season, too.
The Buckeyes lost for the third time in four games and continue to reel from on-field problems stemming from injuries and NCAA violations and suspensions.
Ohio State plays at unbeaten and 16th-ranked Illinois this week before its open date. Then the Buckeyes play No. 4 Wisconsin at home.
“These guys are resilient, and it’s going to come down to a commitment to each other,” Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said.
“We have a lot of pride in what we do, a lot of pride in ourselves, a lot of pride in the university. We’re going to have to call upon their pride. It’s not going to be easy to get over.”
The same could have been said for Nebraska if it hadn’t won the first Big Ten game at Memorial Stadium.
Not much has come easily the first half of the season for the Huskers. The defense has been awful at times, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has been up and down.
Martinez, who threw three interceptions in the 48-17 loss at Wisconsin, was picked off late in the first half Saturday. That led to a field goal that put Ohio State up 20-6 at halftime, and Martinez and his teammates were booed as they ran to the locker room.
The Huskers went three-and-out on the first series of the second half, and Ohio State drove 47 yards in seven plays to increase its lead to 27-6.
Linebacker Lavonte David went to the sideline and urged his teammates to play smart and not give up.
“We’re not out of this,” David told them.
David made the game-changing play on Nebraska’s next defensive series, pulling the ball away from freshman quarterback Braxton Miller at the OSU 24.
Martinez ran untouched into the end zone from 18 yards to start the rally. Then came his 36-yard TD pass to Quincy Enunwa and his tying 30-yarder to Rex Burkhead after Stanley Jean-Baptiste intercepted Joe Bauserman in his first game at cornerback after moving from receiver.
Burkhead, who ran 26 times for 119 yards, scored the game-winner on a 17-yard run with 5:10 left in the game.
Martinez, maligned during the week for his performance against Wisconsin, ran 17 times for 102 yards and was 16 of 22 passing for 191 yards.
“We were just playing together as a family,” he said. “That’s been our motto all week: togetherness and ‘familiness.’ We just came together. I’m glad we came through with the win.”
Just when it looked as if Miller was ready to take ownership of the quarterback’s job, uncertainty cropped up again after he sprained his right ankle in the middle of the third quarter.
Bauserman took over and finished 1 of 10, and the Buckeyes generated only 49 yards on his four-plus series. Bauserman missed badly on several passes in an outing similar to his 2-for-14 night against Miami three weeks ago.
Pelini, who was coaching against his alma mater, offered a simple explanation for the difference in his team’s performances in the first and second halves.
“We played better football,” he said. “We executed. That’s what the game comes down to. The same group of guys played the second half that played the first half. We executed better the second half.”
Nebraska had 306 of its 423 yards in the second half. Its uptempo offense seemed to wear down the Buckeyes’ defense in the rain.
“They made several big plays on us,” linebacker Andrew Sweat said. “It was small stuff like a guy being out of his gap, not winning the one-on-one battle. It turned into huge plays.”