STILLWATER, Okla. - A week after suffering a painful loss to Texas and having the public outlook of season suddenly projecting the worst, Nebraska proved its doubters wrong in a big way on Saturday.
It wasn't perfect by any means, but the No. 14 Huskers' 51-41 shootout win over No. 17 Oklahoma State served as a major milestone for a program that's had its troubles responding to adversity in recent years. Not only was it NU's first win in Stillwater since 1995, it also marked the first win over a top-20 opponent on the road since 1997.
"We talked going into the game that no matter what happens, you've got to keep fighting," head coach Bo Pelini said. "You've got to pick it up for the guy next to you and the guy next to him, and no matter what, we'll make some plays. Everybody in the game had their mistakes, I promise you, but everybody that played today made some plays and did some things to win the football game."
The game was especially important for redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, who looked the best he's ever been in his seventh career game. Martinez finished the game with 435 yards of total offense, and he made unbelievable strides in his passing, completing 23-of-35 passes for 323 yards and five touchdowns.
His passing yards and touchdowns were both the most ever by an NU freshman quarterback.
"In practice we always pass the ball like that," said Martinez, who became the first Husker ever to throw for more than 300 yards and rush for 100. "Today we just showed everybody else that we can throw the ball like that instead of dropping back and running. My receivers did a great job of finding me and they made great catches.
Though Oklahoma State (6-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12 Conference) was supposed to be the team with the explosive offense, it was Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) that came out firing first. After a three-and-out by OSU to open the game, the Huskers put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive that featured a 27-yard run by punter Alex Henery on a fake punt and was capped off by a 45-yard touchdown pass from Martinez to receiver Brandon Kinnie.
Oklahoma State responded with back-to-back field goals to make it 7-6 with the help of a fumble by Martinez, but senior Niles Paul came through with a 100-yard kickoff return down the right sideline to bump the lead back up to 14-6 with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
Once again, the Cowboys were able to quickly respond, as quarterback Brandon Weeden engineered an 11-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Joseph Randle. Weeden, who had yet to complete a pass yet prior to the drive, was 5-of-5 passing for 50 yards.
Nebraska quickly answered yet again, this time by running the ball down to the OSU 1-yard line and then scoring on a rollout pass from Martinez to fullback Tyler Legate.
After a pair of stalled drives by both teams, Oklahoma State marched its way down the field on the shoulders of running back Kendall Hunter, who rushed six times for 52 yards with an 8-yard touchdown to bring it back to 21-20. Hunter finished with a game-high 201 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
Henery hit a 52-yard field goal to make it 24-20, but the Cowboys came right back with an 80-yard touchdown on a flea-flicker pass play from Weeden to receiver Justin Blackmon, who beat cornerback Prince Amukamara on the play.
With time running out in the half, Nebraska needed to find a way to get back some momentum going into halftime. It got just that in another well-executed drive by Martinez, who threw a 33-yard pass to senior Mike McNeill and then an 9-yard touchdown pass to Kinnie with 55 seconds left in the half to send NU into the locker room with a 31-27 lead.
"That was a huge drive, especially knowing that we were going to get the ball back to start the second half," Pelini said. "I thought that was really big? I think that settled our guys down. That was a big, big drive in the football game."
The Huskers definitely carried over that momentum into the second half, as Henery added another field goal from 32 yards and then Martinez hit tight end Kyler Reed on a 41-yard touchdown pass to put NU up 41-27 midway through the third quarter.
Oklahoma State's offense finally got going again on its next possession, as a 28-yard run by Hunter and a 21-yard pass from Weeden to Josh Cooper helped lead to a 1-yard touchdown run by Hunter to bring it back to 41-34.
That score held into the fourth quarter until Henery drilled his third field goal of the day to put Nebraska up 44-34 with 11:39 remaining in the game. Another three-and-out by OSU gave the Huskers the ball back with a chance to put the nail in the coffin, and that's exactly what they did.
Just as he'd done throughout the game, Martinez steadily led the offense down the field and sealed the win with an 8-yard touchdown lob to Kinnie in the back left corner of the end zone to go up 51-34 with 4:29 to play.
The Cowboys added a late touchdown pass to Blackmon, who ended with five catches for 157 yards and two scores, to bring back to within 10, but it was merely for stats. The Huskers will return to Lincoln and play host to rival Missouri on Saturday.
"There was a lot of things that happened in that football game, and I thought this football team showed a lot of fight and a lot of character in that game," Pelini said. "We weren't perfect by any means, but I just told the team, I'm proud of that group of guys for sticking together and fighting."
- Robin Washut
Martinez grows up
Everyone had seen what Martinez was capable as a runner, and he had shown flashes of his ability as a passer at times through his first six collegiate games.
Saturday, however, was the first time he put it all together.
The results were one of the best overall performances by a Nebraska quarterback in years, and in the eyes of his coaches and teammates, Martinez may have taken a huge step forward in his development.
"He's been getting more comfortable," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "He has a real knowledge of what we're doing now, and his confidence, you can see at times a little goes on. His eyes brighten up, and you go, 'All right, he's getting it.' Then he puts it on film in practice. Today was the first time that he consistently did it in a game.
"He's done it in games, but today was the first time he really did it consistently. I'm really proud of him."
Martinez was his usual calm and quiet self following Saturday's win, but what others had to say about his performance was definitely loud and clear. After his letdown last week against Texas, Watson said a game like Martinez had against the Cowboys could very well be the springboard in taking the next step as a quarterback.
"Today you got to see what we see every day in practice," Watson said. "He has a competitive arm. He can compete with his arm. He's just growing. He's a redshirt freshman. He's never played at this level until now, so he's just getting better every time he walks out there. There's always a performance that's a threshold performance, that kind of throws him through the door, and hopefully this will be the one today.
"Taylor grew up today. That's a good thing. That's a big step in his growth? I'll tell you what guys, when you see him finish his career, it'll be unbelievable what he'll be able to do, because he's got the competitive desire to be the best. That's where he's different."
Some of the most notable comments after the game were from Martinez's offensive teammates, who all said they noticed a different demeanor from the Corona, Calif., native in the huddle and on the sideline. For maybe the first time, they said, Martinez was taking full control of his offense.
"He was definitely a lot more vocal out there and rushing us back to the huddle. Usually Taylor will just walk back to huddle, but (today) he was just being more of a leader out there. We're all happy about that."
- Robin Washut
Receivers get redemption
No players on Nebraska's roster wanted to come out and have a good game on Saturday more than Paul and Kinnie.
Because of the numerous dropped passes in crucial situations last week, the receiver duo was the primary scapegoat for the loss to the Longhorns. Needless to say, they were anything but that against the Cowboys.
Paul bounced back from an emotionally trying week with a season-high nine catches for 131 yards and also ran back a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Kinnie also had a career day, catching three touchdown passes in the win, marking his first three touchdowns of the season.
"I'm just thankful for my coaches and teammates for having faith in me still after last week and me showing that I can make those plays," Kinnie said. "Like I said last week, that's not the caliber of player I was. That wasn't me. I'm just glad they kept faith in me and just kept coming to me."
Paul, who voiced his frustration earlier in the week over the way he was treated by some fans because of his poor play against Texas, said he couldn't wait to get back on the field and make up for his mistakes a week ago.
"Last week was a humbling experience," Paul said. "I just came back to practice and got back to the basics and catching the ball."
Pelini said the way both players responded this week was exactly what he wanted to see. For Paul in particular, Pelini said he was proud of the resiliency he showed during an extremely difficult week.
"Niles is a stud," Pelini said. "He's a competitor. I think he was just anxious to get back out there and I thought he played well. He stepped up for us and made some plays. We talked about it. You can't cry about what happened. You look back on what happened when adversity hits, you assess it, you make your corrections and you move on and you give it your best effort the next week."
- Robin Washut