LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska fans had been waiting all offseason for this game. They couldn't wait to get one last crack at longtime tormenter Texas before leaving for the Big Ten, and after the way the two teams' seasons had started -- the Huskers scorching their opponents, the Longhorns bumbling their way to two defeats -- it was a matter of when, not if, they'd celebrate Saturday's victory.
But as the final seconds ticked down on a 20-13 Texas upset, a tiny pocket of burnt orange in an upper-deck corner of Memorial Stadium drowned out the Huskers' famed Sea of Red with a "Texas Fight" chant. Befitting its reputation, Nebraska's classy crowd did stay 'til the bitter end.
"I guess they wanted to see us celebrate," said 'Horns cornerback Aaron Williams.
Mack Brown's team got the breakthrough win it needed to save a season that seemed to be skidding toward disaster. Despite calling Nebraska "the best place to play in college football" and lamenting what could be "the last Texas-Nebraska game in the history of college football," the 13th-year Texas coach has been no friend to the folks in red. He finished 9-1 against the Huskers, and his last two wins were the most crushing of them all.
Last December, the 'Horns thwarted a potential Nebraska Big 12 championship on a controversial, last-second field goal. This time, they squashed the Huskers' budding national title aspirations before Nebraska could even get to the second half of its season.
"I thought there was more pressure on them today than on us," said Brown, "and that's unusual."
Local sports-talk jocks spent hours leading up to the game trying to find new ways to analyze and dissect the matchup, but inevitably they returned to the same consensus: The Huskers should kill these guys. Of course, they were counting on Taylor "T-Magic" Martinez continuing to perform at the same high level as through his first five starts.
But Texas' defense presented a markedly greater challenge than teams like Washington (102nd nationally in total defense) and Kansas State (82nd). The 'Horns made it clear how different a day this would be for the redshirt freshman quarterback right from Nebraska's opening possession, when Alex Okafor drew Martinez into an intentional grounding call seven yards in the backfield, and Emmanuel Acho stopped Martinez one yard short of a first down on a 14-yard scramble -- his longest run of the day.
"Early in the season, we have a tendency to get so high and so low on some teams," said Brown. "We knew [Martinez] was really good, but we felt like maybe he hadn't played teams with players like us, guys with great foot speed. We also knew he was a redshirt freshman in his first big game."
Nebraska came in averaging 337.6 yards on the ground. Texas held the Huskers to 44 in the first half. Martinez came in averaging 10.8 yards per rushing attempt. On Saturday, he averaged just 1.6 on 13 attempts, and was eventually benched in favor of backup Zac Lee once the Huskers fell behind 20-3. Texas made the Magic go poof, an even more impressive feat considering several key contributors -- linebacker Keenan Robinson, safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown -- sustained injuries. (Robinson and Vaccaro did not play in the second half, replaced by freshmen Jordan Hicks and Adrian Phillips.)
Though Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp received a bear hug on the field afterward from university president Bill Powers, he deferred credit to his players. "I'm the same idiot that coached the UCLA game," he said. "We played great assignment football. They did what they were supposed to do."
Even though Texas stifled Martinez and the Huskers' rushing attack, this could have been an entirely different game if not for several abominable dropped passes by Nebraska receivers. Niles Paul, purportedly Nebraska's top receiving target, dropped one wide-open pass that would have resulted in a touchdown, as did running back Rex Burkhead on a deep ball near the end zone. Late in the game, with the Huskers still holding out hope of a comeback, Lee hit wide-open receiver Brandon Kinnie in the end zone -- but he dropped it, too.
Meanwhile fumbles, Nebraska's season-long Achilles' heel, continued against the 'Horns. The Huskers put it on the ground five times, losing one.
"Some of the things that have been hurting us hurt us today, and worse," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "I give credit to Texas, but we didn't take care of ourselves."
Give credit, too, to 'Horns offensive coordinator Greg Davis for igniting a spark in a unit that had struggled all season. In a strange twist, Texas' decidedly un-mobile quarterback Garrett Gilbert upstaged Martinez, carrying 11 times for 71 yards, including a 25-yard gain on Texas' opening series, and scoring two touchdowns. Gilbert's early success in the run game -- using much the same delayed draws and misdirection plays that were once a staple of predecessors Vince Young and Colt McCoy -- opened the middle of the field a bit for tailbacks Fozzy Whitaker, Tre Netwon and Cody Johnson, who teamed with Gilbert to deliver a season-high 209 rushing yards.
"They do such a great job with their match coverage, we felt that one of the things we had to do was spread the field a little bit and use Garrett in the run game," said Davis. "We needed the quarterback to make some plays with his feet. It's something we need to continue to do."
Texas' offense is still very much a raw unit. It had almost no success through the air (Gilbert went 4-of-16 for 62 yards), and after getting out to a big lead, relied almost entirely on the defense and special teams (including two magnificent rugby punts by Justin Tucker that pinned Nebraska inside its five). The Huskers provided a scare at the end when Eric Hagg returned a Texas pooch punt for a 95-yard touchdown with 3:02 left to pull within a touchdown, but Nebraska's onside kick failed, and a series of Johnson runs iced the contest.
Brown conceded that the 'Horns are not yet a "gimme team" -- i.e. they aren't dominant enough to consider any game a "gimme" -- but they're in a lot better shape than they were two weeks ago, having averted the first three-game losing streak of Brown's tenure.
Nebraska, meanwhile, endured a painful reality check. Martinez can be stopped. The defense is mortal. And the Huskers face undefeated Oklahoma State and Missouri over the next two weeks. They could well recover and contend one last time for the Big 12 championship -- but if Saturday proved anything, Pelini's program still has some hurdles to jump.
"It isn't fun losing, especially to Texas," said offensive lineman Keith Williams. "I'm a senior and I wanted to win that game. It sucks."
You're not alone, Keith. About 85,000 people in red headed to their cars Saturday night feeling a very familiar, dejected feeling. And this time, there's no guarantee of another shot.