If two comebacks were a coincidence, then three comebacks were at least the start of a trend. Four? Well, now Nebraska has developed a full-fledged reputation for being a second-half team. Four times in Big Ten play this season, the Cornhuskers have trailed an opponent by double digits in the third quarter or later, only to storm back for victories.
So what's the secret to all these in-game turnarounds, Jerry Kill: Is Nebraska -- the Gophers' opponent on Saturday -- simply resilient, or do the Huskers wear down opponents?
"It's a little bit of both. I think they're resilient and they wear people down," said Kill, the Gophers coach who went on to name some other Nebraska qualities that will make life difficult for his visiting team. "They're stronger this year on the offensive line than they were a year ago. ... They wear you down in the third and fourth quarter, very much like Wisconsin."
And while it might seem incongruous to think that the Big Ten's leading rushing team (269.3 yards per game) is so adept at these comebacks, a much-improved passing game gets a share of the credit. Taylor Martinez, who completed only 56.2 percent of passes last season, has evolved into a true dual-threat quarterback. He has 19 touchdown passes (and only eight interceptions) while raising his passer rating more than 20 points over last season.
"Taylor Martinez has played pretty darn well in the fourth quarter of some of these games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I was watching on tape against Michigan State. ... He was dynamic, outstanding."
Fitzgerald saw it firsthand when Martinez threw two TD passes in the final six minutes to stun the Wildcats 29-28 -- the first game after the Leaders Division co-leading Cornhuskers were thumped 63-38 by Ohio State. Against Michigan State, Martinez overcame a shaky start with a 35-yard TD run in the fourth quarter, followed by a touchdown pass in the final seconds of a 28-24 victory.
Overall, in its five conference victories, Nebraska (8-2, 5-1) is outscoring opponents 95-37 after halftime. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini attributes the dramatic victories to "better execution as the games have gone on," noting that his team has put itself "in some tough situations and had to respond."
That said, he also is quite pleased with those responses.
"To do that, you have to be pretty mentally tough, which I think our guys are -- [they] believe in each other and what we're doing," Pelini said. "Like the other day, at halftime [trailing Penn State 20-6] there was no sense of panic. Our players were feeling like, 'We've been here before, we know how to do this.'"
Two quarters later, Nebraska had a 32-23 victory. This much is not in doubt: The comeback victories have defined Nebraska's season. Turn a couple of those four victories into losses -- which easily could have happened -- and there would have been some surly fans in Nebraska. Instead the Cornhuskers, who own the Leaders tiebreaker by virtue of their victory over Michigan, will be headed to the conference title game against Wisconsin if they can defeat Minnesota and Iowa in the final two weeks.
This much, too, is not in doubt: Pelini would love to be able to run out the clock against the Gophers -- a team he calls "very much improved" -- instead of watching his team scramble to beat the clock again.
"Hopefully we won't continue to put ourselves in that situation," Pelini said. "I don't know if I can handle much more of that."