It was a tale of two completely different football games in one sixty minute game when Nebraska faced Ohio State in the first Big Ten game in Lincoln. The Huskers came out fired up and the crowd responded with an electric atmosphere. But then the game started, and the Huskers bugaboo from last week continued: poor secondary play let Ohio State dominate the opening period. Early on, Nebraska was stout against the Buckeyes offense in rushing situations, only to let the Buckeyes off the hook with passes or scrambles in passing situations. Second and 12? 21 yard pass play. Second and 9? 11 yard pass. Third down scrambles by Braxton Miller for 12 and 24 yards... and boom, the Buckeyes led 17-3 in the second quarter.
Meanwhile on offense, Nebraska kept trying to pound the ball, primarily with Rex Burkhead. Eleven first half carries, 10 yards. Nebraska tried a variety of short screen passes early on, but couldn't sustain a drive. Martinez wasn't playing badly for most of the first half, but wasn't able to get the offense untracked either. Just before halftime, a potentially fatal strategy error struck. Rather than let the clock run out, Martinez overthrew Kyler Reed, with Orhian Johnson intercepting the pass at midfield with seconds left. Braxton Miller scrambled for 29 yards on the next play to set up a field goal. Halftime score in Lincoln: Buckeyes 20, Huskers 6. (Edit: Someone on the Grand Island Independent forums pointed out my typo on the score. That's what I get for writing well past my bed time. I've corrected the score.)
I'm sure if I had a smartphone at the game and checked Twitter, I'm sure the ridicule would have been extreme. Everyday Should Be Saturday simply said "Nebraska you are horrible." And they were right. A few fans booed the horrible strategy decision and the horrible interception.
The second half didn't start much better. Martinez slipped on the wet turf on the Huskers opening possession and punted. Then cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Andrew Green got roasted by the Buckeyes on deep passes. Five minutes in, it was Buckeyes 27, Huskers 6. Blowout city. Maybe the Huskers belong in the Mountain West or Conference USA. The people who sit in front of me packed their bag and headed home.
Then the game changed. I attributed it to the insertion of Stanley Jean-Baptiste at cornerback. But Lavonte David's incredible strip of Braxton Miller was the big play. Suddenly the Huskers had the ball in scoring position, and Taylor Martinez used one of his incredible slight-of-hand ball-fakes to send the defense (and every cameraman covering the game) chasing Burkhead on the sweep while Martinez sprinted into the end zone. On Ohio State's next possession, Miller injured his ankle and the mobile quarterback was replaced by the immobile Joe Bauserman. And from that point on, it was game over.
Without needing to worry about scrambling, the Husker defense was able to pressure Bauserman into errant throw after errant throw. Bauserman was able to complete only one of 10 passes; the one completion took advantage of a Jean-Baptiste miscue to extend an Ohio State drive. But without the threat of a mobile quarterback, the Huskers were able to shut down Ohio State on offense the rest of the way.
Whether Nebraska's offensive line was able to make some adjustments or they finally wore down the Buckeye defense isn't clear, but the Nebraska offense took over from there. Those 2 yard Burkhead runs in the first half became six yard runs. And to complement Burkhead, Martinez time and time again stepped up and picked up key first downs on scrambles. Need three? Martinez picked up four yards twice. He kept his poise all night long, much to the chagrin of a couple of Martinez-bashers that were within earshot of me. He completed clutch passes to Kyler Reed, Kenny Bell, and then checked down to Rex Burkhead for a 30 yard touchdown to tie the game at 27-27. And with the Buckeyes on the ropes, Nebraska pummeled them into submission. You knew Rex Burkhead was going to get the ball, and Ohio State couldn't stop it. And suddenly, Nebraska's greatest comeback in school history was complete as the Huskers led 34-27.
Jean-Baptist's diving interception was a beauty and I firmly expect him to start in two weeks at Minnesota. After the game, I overheard parts of Bo Pelini's postgame press conference where he lit into Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald for his hatchet piece in Friday's newspaper. Some members of the media took offense, but the offense was Chatelain's yellow journalism. It's one thing to report, another thing to analyze and critique. Then there is simply trying to inflame people...and that's what Chatelain tried to do. Should Pelini have just brushed off Chatelain's article? That wouldn't be Bo Pelini: he's always going to look out for the people in his program first and foremost.
Chatelain has a serious dilemma on his hands. His Friday article destroyed his relationship with the football program. He could choose to continue to be the contrarian for Nebraska football...but he'll likely have to do it with minimal interviews and comments from the program. Or, he may need to find another beat to cover because I don't think he's going to be able to cover the Huskers anymore. Whether that's another sport (Creighton basketball?), going outside of sports (politics?), or even leaving Omaha and finding another employer, I don't know.
This criticism of Chatelain isn't to criticize people who write critical articles. Chatelain went beyond that with a horribly biased and conflicted article. It was a muddled mess: Martinez played injured last year, there are no other quarterbacks ready to play, therefore Martinez should be benched. Got that? Maybe that's a gross over-simplification of Chatelain's article, but Chatelain's article was a gross over-simplification of the Huskers' quarterback situation.
Nebraska's comeback against Ohio State gives fans a taste of the football team fans like myself hoped we'd see this season. Good defense and a potent offense. We saw about 25 minutes of that tonight, 20 minutes last week against Wisconsin, and a quarter against Washington. Have the Huskers turned a corner? We may find out in three weeks when Michigan State comes to Lincoln.