Published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:53 pm
FOOTBALL
Chatelain: Huskers are captains in crunch time

Just before 4 p.m., I grabbed a quarter, took a seat on the carpet and started flipping.

Heads. Tails. Tails. Heads.

My mission: Match the Huskers. In beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl, Bo Pelini's team wrapped up win No. 9 for the sixth straight season. But mathematically, it accomplished something far more improbable.

NU won its ninth consecutive contest decided by six points or less. Coin-flip games.

The streak dates back to the 2012 Big Ten opener, when Nebraska rallied to beat Wisconsin 30-27. Since then, the Huskers have won games by one, four, six, three, three, four, three and five. This is the story of 2012-13. Close wins, big losses. Nebraska had seven double-digit losses and its average margin of defeat was 18.6. But its late-game success rate? Untouchable.

Look at every FBS team in the country. Study their results in games decided by six points or less. No one has a winning streak longer than six, Central Michigan. (Ohio State had also won six straight before losing to Clemson, 40-35, in the Orange Bowl.)

How much is skill? How much is luck? Depends on your point of view. But clearly, the Huskers don't fear the tense moments. Their streak stood at five on Halloween — then things got crazy. Hail Mary to beat Northwestern. Clutch drive to beat Michigan. Overtime field goal at Penn State. Two fourth-down stops to beat Georgia.

During the nine fourth quarters, victory odds occasionally looked better than 50/50. Occasionally they looked worse. But NU always found the right blend of poise, execution and good fortune. It's roughly the equivalent of flipping nine consecutive “Heads.”

Which is what I tried to do Friday afternoon. Numerous times, I achieved six, seven, even eight straight. But No. 9 always let me down. On the 422nd flip. On the 568th. On the 578th. On the 630th. On the 907th. At 1,000, I hit a cold spell and — as my wife called the insane asylum — I grew so frustrated I almost quit.

Finally, after 54 minutes, I reached the 1,753rd flip. Heads! Nine in a row.

The Huskers worked even harder to get their nine.

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Nebraska 24, Georgia 19, Jan. 1, 2014

Entering the fourth quarter: 24-12 Nebraska
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 51 percent.
Defining moment: Twice Georgia penetrated the NU red zone in the final five minutes. Twice the Blackshirts forced a turnover on downs, stirring memories of the Gator Bowl five years ago against Clemson.
At its bleakest point: Momentum was slipping away late in the third quarter. Nebraska was stuck on its 1-foot line, third-and-14. Was this the start of another second-half bowl collapse? No. Tommy Armstrong and Quincy Enunwa connected for a 99-yard touchdown, giving Nebraska a 24-12 lead.
Catching a break: The final fourth-down pass hit Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch in the hands. But a more subtle stroke of luck came when NU was backed up on its goal line. Officials blew the whistle to review the previous play, giving Tim Beck and Bo Pelini time to call a deep pass.
Making their own luck: Georgia ran 23 more plays and had 109 more yards, but Nebraska played a cleaner game. The defense tackled well and the offense committed just one turnover on a sloppy day.
What victory meant: A sixth consecutive nine-win season, a bowl win over an SEC traditional power and — most important — a source of optimism entering the offseason.

Nebraska 23, Penn State 20, Nov. 23, 2013

Entering the fourth quarter: 17-13 Nebraska
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 25 percent.
Defining moment: Pat Smith, who was kicking at Western Illinois a year earlier, split the uprights from 42 yards in overtime, the first walk-off field goal since Josh Brown (Colorado 2000).
At its bleakest point: Tie game. Third-and-14. Nebraska backed up to its 1-yard line. Sound familiar? With 1:22 left, Bo Pelini knew a punt would've handed Penn State the ball in Husker territory needing just a field goal to win. So just as he did a month later in Jacksonville, he took his chances deep and Quincy Enunwa drew a pass interference.
Catching a break: Sam Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal in overtime, but his biggest error came in the first quarter when he missed an extra point. Had he connected, the Huskers may have lost in regulation.
Making their own luck: The Huskers had their own bad break when officials flagged Sam Burtch for unnecessary roughness, wiping out Ameer Abdullah's fourth-down touchdown run. The defense helped overcome it, keeping Penn State out of scoring range on its final three regulation drives.
What victory meant: Nebraska could've folded after a deflating home loss to Michigan State. Winning in Happy Valley was another positive step for the defense — and another scrapbook page for Ron Kellogg.

Nebraska 17, Michigan 13, Nov. 9, 2013

Win probabilities were calculated by Paul Bessire, general manager of PredictionMachine.com, an advanced statistical site dedicated to thorough football analysis.

Entering the fourth quarter: 10-10
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 26 percent.
Defining moment: Individual drives don't get much sweeter than Nebraska's 14-play, 75-yard march late in the fourth quarter. On third and goal, Tommy Armstrong improvised and pitched to Ameer Abdullah, who dove over the goal line for the lead.
At its bleakest point: Earlier on the drive, NU faced fourth-and-2 at the Michigan 31. With 3:25 left, there was no margin for error, especially when Tim Beck checked to an out route from right hash to left sideline. Armstrong completed it to Kenny Bell, who dodged a tackle and took it to the Michigan 5.
Catching a break: Michigan's offensive futility inspired boos from the home crowd.
Making their own luck: Two key defensive stands — one after Jordan Westerkamp muffed a punt, the other after Abdullah's touchdown — proved that this wasn't the NU defense we saw at Minnesota.
What victory meant: Michigan hadn't lost at home since Rich Rodriguez was coach in 2010. More important, it kept Nebraska's division hopes alive.

Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24, Nov. 2, 2013

Entering the fourth quarter: 21-21
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 14 percent (seems a bit too high, doesn't it?)
Defining moment: Perhaps the greatest roar in Memorial Stadium history — a 49-yard Hail Mary completion from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp.
At its bleakest point: The obvious choice is right before the Hail Mary. But how about fourth-and-15 from the Nebraska 24 just moments earlier? Kellogg found Ameer Abdullah, who escaped a tackle and reached successfully for the first down, giving the Huskers hope.
Catching a break: Who knows how long Pat Fitzgerald lay awake wondering why at least one defender didn't stay in the end zone with Westerkamp? Or why he didn't blitz Kellogg.
Making their own luck: Abdullah's play is the classic example of extra effort. But don't forget the defense rising up and forcing a field goal after Northwestern intercepted Tommy Armstrong and took over at the Husker 7-yard line.
What victory meant: A week after losing at Minnesota, Nebraska appeared to be running on fumes when it fell behind 21-7 in the second quarter. A loss here and NU morale may have plummeted. But the Blackshirts turned it around just in time, a huge confidence boost for the stretch run.

Nebraska 37, Wyoming 34, Aug. 31, 2013

Entering the fourth quarter: 31-21 Nebraska
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 69 percent.
Defining moment: A game that should've been over when NU took a 37-21 lead was still in doubt after two Husker turnovers and two Wyoming touchdowns. The Cowboys, who finished with 602 total yards, got the ball back with 1:07 left, but Nebraska forced two holding penalties and Wyoming ran out of time.
At its bleakest point: The Huskers were never in serious danger, but as bad as the secondary played in the fourth quarter, giving Brett Smith one last chance — even 94 yards from the end zone — was risky.
Catching a break: Wyoming had momentum and a hot quarterback early in the fourth when a trick play — a wide receiver pass — turned disastrous. Trey Norman underthrew the ball and Ciante Evans picked it off.
Making their own luck: The Husker offense didn't meet expectations, but it still generated 37 points and 530 total yards.
What victory meant: NU won its 28th straight season opener, but the close call put immediate pressure on Bo Pelini and John Papuchis to fix the defense.

Nebraska 13, Iowa 7, Nov. 23, 2012

Score entering the fourth quarter: 13-7 Nebraska
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 46 percent.
Defining moment: With 2:25 left, Iowa still had a shot. But on first down at the Hawkeye 39, Alonzo Whaley jumped a short route and intercepted James Vandenberg's pass.
At its bleakest point: NU trailed 7-3 at halftime, but the most ominous moment came with 12:03 left in the game. Leading 13-7, the Huskers took over on their 1-yard line facing a stiff Iowa defense and a merciless north wind. Rex Burkhead, hampered by injury most of the season, responded with two inspired runs, moving NU out of trouble.
Catching a break: Iowa's offensive inefficiency (and conservatism) ruined a promising second quarter. The Hawks had the ball inside the NU 40 on three possessions. They didn't score a single point.
Making their own luck: Say what you want about Iowa's '12 offense, but after half the Husker D allowed 70 total yards and no points on seven Hawkeye possessions.
What victory meant: A 10-2 regular season, the extension of a six-game winning streak, a ticket to Indianapolis and, of course, bragging rights for a year.

Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24, Nov. 3, 2012

Entering the fourth quarter: 17-14 Michigan State
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 7 percent.
Defining moment: With six seconds left and NU trailing 24-21, Taylor Martinez hit Jamal Turner in the corner of the end zone.
At its bleakest point: There were plenty to choose from. But none bleaker than a fourth-and-10 with 40 seconds left on Nebraska's 42-yard line. Facing one of the nation's best defenses on its home turf, Martinez found Kyler Reed for 38 yards, putting NU in scoring position.
Catching a break: Nebraska caught two big ones. The first came early in the fourth when Darqueze Dennard's 96-yard interception return was called back because of a personal foul during the return. Then, on third-and-10 in the final 25 seconds, Dennard was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, giving NU first-and-goal at the 5.
Making their own luck: On three fourth-quarter possessions, Michigan State's offense recorded one first down against the Blackshirts.
What victory meant: Trailing by two scores with eight minutes left for the second time in three weeks, Martinez stepped up again. For the day, he rushed for 205 yards against the Big Ten's top run defense. He threw for 160 and NU stayed in first place in the Legends.

Nebraska 29, Northwestern 28, Oct. 20, 2012

Entering the fourth quarter: 21-16 Northwestern
Husker win probability dropped as low as: Data wasn't available for this game, but based on a similar scenario at Michigan State, we can estimate 5 percent.
Defining moment: Northwestern missed a 53-yard field goal with 1:10 left.
At its bleakest point: The Wildcats went ahead 28-16 with 8:31 left. Since 1964, the Huskers hadn't rallied from a deficit so big with so little time remaining.
Catching a break: On the ensuing drive, Taylor Martinez threw into traffic on consecutive plays. Twice Northwestern dropped potential interceptions. Had the Wildcats corralled either ball, NU would've been sunk.
Making their own luck: Following the two incompletions, Martinez caught fire. He was 5-for-6, including a touchdown to Taariq Allen. The next drive, he went 5-for-5 and his 7-yarder to Ben Cotton gave Nebraska the lead.
What victory meant: This was right after a 63-38 embarrassment at Ohio State. Right after Bo Pelini's “win out” proclamation. A loss at Northwestern would've put the season in peril. Instead, Nebraska got a jolt and Martinez (407 total yards, no turnovers) secured his finest game since 2010.

Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27, Sept. 29, 2012

Entering the fourth quarter: 27-27
Husker win probability dropped as low as: 14 percent.
Defining moment: Alonzo Whaley and the defense stuffed Wisconsin on fourth-and-1 at midfield with 1:11 left.
At the bleakest point: The Badgers forced a Taylor Martinez fumble early in the third quarter and quickly grabbed a 27-10 lead. Martinez responded with one of his best performances of the season, leading three long scoring drives to tie.
Catching a break: Ameer Abdullah fumbled early in the fourth at the Husker 21-yard line. Martinez not only picked it up, he advanced it 9 yards for a first down.
Making their own luck: The Blackshirts, who looked dreadful before half in their alternate uniforms, recorded five straight stops to finish the game. Baker Steinkuhler's hit on Joel Stave forced the quarterback to the sideline for the final possession.
What victory meant: The Huskers couldn't afford to fall to 3-2 with a road trip to Ohio State looming. In a division-winning season, this first conference win may have been the biggest.

Conclusion

Obviously, Nebraska's seven double-digit losses detract from its hot streak in close games. Had the Huskers scored a late touchdown against Minnesota, for instance, they would've lost by four points, ending the streak. So in a strange way, the streak is both a reflection of their perseverance and an illustration of their fragility against good teams. But this we can safely say: Opponents would be wise to finish off the Huskers in the first 55 minutes. Let them hang around and they'll find a way to win.

For the record, let's take the Huskers' nine win probabilities at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. What are the odds of going 9-0?

Roughly 1 in 500.

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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