LINCOLN, Neb. — As much fun as Nebraska had coming from behind to beat two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin in front of a charged-up home crowd, the Cornhuskers realize they need to clean up their act with three of their next four games on the road.
Before the No. 21 Huskers rallied to win 30-27, they spotted the Badgers a 14-point lead eight minutes into the game and were down by 17 in the third quarter. Two fumbles and a roughing-the-kicker penalty led to Wisconsin touchdowns.
The Huskers know those kinds of mistakes at unbeaten and 12th-ranked Ohio State this Saturday won't fly.
"If we want to win the Big Ten, we can't do things like that," offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "We learned from it, and we have to move forward from it."
Several Nebraska players and coaches said the first-half sloppiness stemmed from getting caught up in the atmosphere surrounding the Big Ten opener.
Taylor Martinez dropped the first snap of the game but recovered it. Rex Burkhead fumbled on his first carry after running up the back of his offensive lineman, setting up Wisconsin's second touchdown.
"We seemed jittery and out of sync with some of the stuff we were doing," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "I felt we were ready and prepared, but we didn't play that way at the start."
The Huskers had said for a week that they wanted payback for last year's humiliating, 31-point loss in Wisconsin. There was all the talk about the alternate uniforms — Nebraska in all red with black helmets and Wisconsin in mostly white with red trim. And it was the first time the Huskers were playing on prime-time national TV since their meltdown at UCLA three weeks earlier.
"This was a big game, but next week is an even bigger game," receiver Kenny Bell said. "After that we play at Northwestern. You look at games like these — big, big and big. In the moment you try to get yourselves hyped up — Saturday night nationally televised game, you're playing Wisconsin. You have to find a way to channel it the right way."
The comeback was a sign of growth after the abysmal performance in the 36-30 loss to UCLA. In that game, the offense did next to nothing in the second half and the defense allowed 653 yards, the second-highest total in program history.
After halftime against Wisconsin, the Huskers generated 297 of their 440 yards and the defense gave up only 90 of the Badgers' 295 total yards.
"I can't say enough for the heart and determination our defense played with," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "They were put in a lot of bad situations. They were resilient and kept fighting. That's the mantra of this program, and it showed itself."
Nebraska started asserting itself late in the first half with a 12-play, 93-yard drive that cut the Badgers' lead to 20-10.
Martinez's fumble early in the third quarter led to the Badgers' 13-yard TD drive that made it a 17-point game. Then Huskers put together touchdown drives of 77 and 75 yards before Brett Maher kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie it and a 41-yard field goal for the lead.
It was the second-largest comeback in program history. The biggest was last year's rally from a 21-point deficit in the third quarter against Ohio State.
Defensive lineman Chase Rome said the mood at halftime reminded him of that game against the Buckeyes.
"No one in the locker room was like, 'Oh, we're going to lose this game.' Everyone was light-hearted, and we knew if we turned it on, there wasn't much (Wisconsin) could do to stop us. We all believed in each other. I've said since the offseason that this is the most team oriented I've seen this team, where I'm playing for the guy to my left and the guy to my right."