About two-and-a-half quarters through the Nebraska Cornhuskers' game against the Ohio State Buckeyes in Lincoln on Saturday night, my fellow Husker fans and I were standing, mouths agape and head—in—hands, fuming about what was transpiring before our eyes.
It wasn't just that our Huskers were losing. They were down 27-6, to a 3-2 team that had been held to zero points until the final moments of their previous game, against a defense not known for its dominance.
The Ohio State Buckeyes, who went through an infernal offseason, had lost to the Michigan State Spartans 10-7 the week before and came into the Husker game with an offense that hadn't impressed anyone all season.
This was supposed to be the coming out party for the Blackshirts, who had underachieved all season but had a favorable match-up against an offense with a freshman quarterback and back-ups at running back and receiver.
But before we knew it, the Buckeyes had a 21-point lead and their offense was driving up and down the field like it was Wisconsin's.
Eighty thousand stunned Husker fans could do nothing but watch the season unravel before their very eyes. Our hometown heroes were being dominated for the second straight game and on their way to an 0-2 conference record, the whole season hanging in the balance.
Then, something happened. Someone made a play. That play shifted the momentum. Then someone else made a play. The momentum shifted a little more. Then a break, which was capitalized upon with another play. More momentum. Then yet another player made a play, followed by another play.
Suddenly, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were leading the Ohio State Buckeyes, 34-27, and the crowd in Lincoln was in a frenzy.
The Huskers had just pulled off the biggest comeback in school history, injecting brand new life into a season that only moments before had bleak prospects.
But how did Nebraska do it?
The generic answer would be they pulled together as a team. While that is altogether true, the whole thing was started by the guy who first made a play.
He was All-American senior linebacker Lavonte David, whose strip of quarterback Braxton Miller on what would have been a first down run, sparked the furious comeback and may have been the play of the year for the Huskers.
But David wasn't the only one who stepped up and led the charge. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead were also brilliant in the comeback.
The embattled Martinez finally snapped under the pressure of the fans and media this past week, but teammates stood behind him and said he was determined to prove his detractors wrong.
Two plays after David's forced fumble, Martinez dashed through the stout Ohio State defense for an 18-yard touchdown, as the stadium erupted around him. At the end of the third quarter, he hooked up with receiver Quincy Enunwa for a beautiful 36-yard touchdown, and halfway through the fourth, he evaded a Ohio State pass rush and chucked the ball down to a wide open Rex Burkhead, who juked a defender and took it to the house, tying the game at 27. Burkhead capped off the comeback with a 17-yard touchdown to put Nebraska ahead 34-27.
In reality, this extraordinary show of leadership from David, Burkhead and Martinez may have saved Nebraska's season.
Let's rewind to early in the third quarter, when Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde put the Buckeyes ahead 27-6. Husker fans were as disgusted as they had been since the loss to Texas in 2010. Nobody had any idea what had happened to Bo Pelini's defense. I wondered if the Huskers would win more than seven games in 2011.
It's frightening to think what could have happened to this team had they been beaten. Could they have bounced back? It's possible. The Huskers' consecutive losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State (a far worse team than this Buckeyes squad) in 2009 gave way to an eventual Big 12 Championship appearance. However, that team was saved by Ndamukong Suh and a veteran defense, neither of which Nebraska has this season. The youthful Huskers could easily have gone into a tailspin.
Regardless, we never have to find out what would have happened, because three leaders took over and carried the team to victory.
There's still a lot of season left to be played, but Lavonte David, Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez stepped up when the Huskers were at rock bottom, and one could argue they rescued the 2011 season.
Though David's play started it all, and Burkhead gave the team the same consistency, reliability and stability that we've all come to know and love, it was the play of Martinez that was perhaps the most impressive.
After a three-interception game gave way to an embarrassing loss to Wisconsin just a week before, Martinez was bombarded from all sides by fans, media members and even classmates. Then, with a three touchdown deficit, one might have expected the redshirt sophomore to implode.
But with a game (and a season) on the line and the pressure on, Martinez delivered the best performance of his career, commanding a resurgent offense that accounted for 28 points in less than two quarters and, most importantly, not turning the ball over once during that stretch.
One mistake by Martinez likely would have ended the comeback bid. There were probably a lot who expected him to screw up. It never happened.
As I said before, that's not to take away from the performances of David and Burkhead, who solidified themselves as the two best Cornhuskers, period.
But it was Martinez who, after months of heavy scrutiny from just about everyone around him, stepped up as the leader of the team and showed maturity and poise no fan or media member has ever seen from him before. Bo Pelini stood firmly behind his quarterback throughout the onslaught, and he's looking like a genius for it right about now.
And let's not forget about the impact the game must have had on recruiting. Several very high profile prospects were in town on official visits, and the huge comeback had to have been particularly impressive to them on top of the usually-high remarks Lincoln gets. Linebacker commit Michael Rose even remarked that the crowd was so loud during the comeback that he couldn't even talk to the person sitting next to him (I couldn't either).
When reflecting back on it, that 27-6 deficit may have been a blessing in disguise.
The comeback that ensued injected some fresh, sorely needed excitement into the program, exposed the team's true leaders, rebuilt the confidence of a very young team and delivered an exciting atmosphere for recruits.
You can feel the euphoric vibe around Lincoln—the Huskers are still in it. But was it one play that turned a likely 7 or 8-win season into a possible 11-win season?
No. It was three players, who rallied their team to pull off a comeback for the ages.
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