With the thrilling 32-23 win over the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are sitting at 8-2, a record only topped by Ohio State among Big Ten teams. They've got the tiebreaker lead over Michigan in a two-team division race with two games to play, and only Minnesota and Iowa remain on the Huskers' schedule.
Should Nebraska go to the Big Ten Championship (which, barring catastrophe, will happen), waiting there is Wisconsin, a team that Nebraska has already defeated this season; the Huskers still look stronger than the Badgers as a whole as well. One win there and it's off to the Rose Bowl.
That's it. That's the short road to Pasadena for Nebraska, and Husker fans should be giddy about those prospects. It's a path that's paved with legitimate accomplishments, hard work and talent. This has been a stellar season, and it should only be getting better in the coming weeks.
It's just that Nebraska's also been a liiiiittle lucky along the way.
Last week, we mentioned the questionable pass interference call against Michigan State that set up Nebraska's game-winning, last-minute touchdown. That call changed the entire complexion of the game, as without it, Nebraska was facing 4th-and-10 and going to have to hit a 37-yard field goal just to force overtime. With it, 1st-and-goal from the 5-yard line and sitting pretty. Big call.
Lo and behold, Nebraska picked up another big call on Saturday—one that ABC announcers Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman vociferously disagreed with afterward, continually harping on it after the fact.
Here's video of the play, courtesy of Diehardsport.com:
Here's the context. With nine minutes left in the game and Nebraska nursing a 27-23 lead, Penn State drove the length of the field to Nebraska's 3-yard line and threatened to score to retake the lead. Matt McGloin found tight end Matt Lehman on a short pattern and Lehman stretched to get the ball across the plane.
A Nebraska player hit Lehman's hand as he stretched out, and Nebraska recovered the loose ball in the end zone. It was called a touchback, and the Huskers appeared to dodge a bullet.
It was close, though, and officials decided to conduct a review. Since the call on the field was a fumble, the video had to show conclusive evidence that James had crossed the plane of the end zone with the ball before it was knocked loose. Tall order, that.
Thing of it is...the review appeared to show exactly that. The ball gets knocked away moments after Lehman crosses the plane with it, a matter of just a handful of frames and thus fractions of a second in real time. But that still counts as indisputable evidence when you've got the technology to look at replays frame by frame like that.
You can see how bang-bang the play is in even slow-motion with this GIF, also from Diehardsport.com. But in that video again, the production crew zeroes in on the right frame where it looks indisputably like the ball had crossed the plane before the fumble. Again—that's the entire point of having this replay technology.
It was to the point that McDonough and Spielman dwelled on it for minutes afterward, even after the game had progressed through a Nebraska punt and a Penn State safety. They even called it "the worst call of 2012 at one point," and it's certainly in that discussion.
Now, it's also important to point out that this game was not directly decided by that call. Nebraska would have had nine minutes to make up a three-point deficit, and that's hardly the same as an automatic loss. Moreover, Nebraska still had to protect its lead for the rest of the game, which is also not automatic; the Huskers did exactly that, and in impressive fashion to boot.
So no, the call doesn't delegitimize Nebraska's win, and if that's what you had gotten out of this then you're just fulfilling a persecution fantasy (sports fans love this fantasy) and we're not going to be part of that.
But the call did dramatically shift the landscape of the game, and it did so in Nebraska's direction. Again. That can't be ignored.
It's not as if the Big Ten and its referees are intentionally doing this in Nebraska's favor, of course—as Hanlon's razor dictates, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"—but it's a major factor that is decidedly working in Nebraska's favor right now.
All great seasons require a little luck, though; that's just football. Michigan was lucky that the Hail Mary that was tipped by a Northwestern defender stayed catchable for Roy Roundtree. Ohio State is lucky that none of Braxton Miller's injuries have been serious.
Heck, Penn State was lucky that Taylor Martinez fumbled near the goal line earlier in the game and that the ball bounced to a Penn State player in the end zone, making it a touchback and not a 1st-and-10 inside the 5 (or, for that matter, still Nebraska's ball).
Nebraska's luck just so happens to be doing the Huskers a ton of help, though, and right at the point in the season that they need it most.