An eerie, contemplative silence pervaded Memorial Stadium at halftime as a season and a head coach's career looked very uncertain.
Nobody was booing Bo Pelini and his team as they went to the locker room at halftime trailing 21-14, but the silence was eloquent.
The offense had started fast, then gone stagnant, mirroring its pattern of the Huskers' losses to UCLA and Minnesota. The Nebraska offensive line – which was losing momentum even before guard Jake Cotton's leg was rolled up – started bogging down and getting in its own way. November was getting very ugly, very quickly for the Big Red.
What followed in the second half could pump some confidence into the Blackshirts – a unit that once was the identity of Nebraska football. It shut down a highly-regarded Big Ten offense and allowed the Huskers to stay within striking distance, until they were rescued by a third-string quarterback and a freshman wide receiver on one of the most unlikely plays in the program's history.
The Blackshirts came through for Pelini when he needed them. The defense went out and kept the Huskers in a position to win the game, allowing only three points and 104 total yards in the second half. The Huskers got only one takeaway, but defensive end Avery Moss's 25-yard pick-six midway through the third period absolutely picked up the Huskers and their inefficient, pass-dropping offense.
Moss had a great second half. So did Ciante Evans. Corey Cooper seemed to be the only Husker who could tackle in the first half, but the defensive front seven found something down the stretch. Josh Banderas looked like he started figuring things out at middle linebacker. Can they sustain that effort success at Ann Arbor next week?
Northwestern had 222 total yards at halftime, but only 104 in the second. If you've bought into the theory that Pelini and John Papuchis cannot make halftime adjustments, you'll have to develop another line of reasoning about how this came about. The Huskers had 10 tackles for loss – half of them by Evans who, along with Moss, provided a spark for a defense that looked utterly lost in the first half, the players often looking to the bench in confusion.
Having completed only one pass all game long, Ron Kellogg III drove his team 83 yards in the final 1:14 with no time outs despite getting sacked by a three-man rush. It looked like the wheels were about to fall off the entire way, but somehow, he held the drive together. On fourth and 15, Kellogg connected on a short pass to Ameer Abdullah, who made a great effort to lunge for the do-or-die first down.
It wasn't pretty, but somehow it got done.
The most gratifying part of the day was watching how the NU defense tightened up against the run after allowing the Wildcats 123 rushing yards in first quarter alone. The Huskers did a lousy job on first down in the first half – at one point, Northwestern had run seven first-down plays and gained 71 yards on those plays. But the Huskers did a great job on third down all day. After converting both of their first two third-down situations, Northwestern was shut out the rest of the day, finishing with two conversions in 14 tries.
"Sometimes, when we're not our own worst enemy, we're pretty good," Pelini said of his defense.
The second half was a slogging dogfight, with neither offense able to do much of anything. After watching the Husker defense get pushed around by Minnesota last week, though, it was a refreshing change.
Like last year, the Huskers' season teetered on the brink late in the game against Northwestern. This time, an eerie, contemplative silence hung over the stadium as Ron Kellogg III brought the team out of the huddle with four ticks left on the clock. Just a few seconds later, one of the loudest roars emitted from the old stadium since Alex Henery kicked a 57-yard field goal and Ndamukong Suh steamrolled Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins five Novembers ago. Kellogg and Jordan Westerkamp rescued their team from a crippling loss that would have all but eliminated them from the Legends Division race.
With Michigan and Michigan State coming up next, what would a loss have done to Pelini's chances? Sure, he got bailed out by a Hail Mary on the game's final play, but his team's second-half defense was the real highlight. Can he keep that narrative going?
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org