LINCOLN, Neb. -- Toughness shows its face on fourth-and-2, late in the fourth quarter, down three points before a crowd of 112,000 on enemy ground.
Pride emerges on the goal line in a tie game, when a defensive stand is the only answer that will lead to a victory.
Resiliency rises to the surface, 83 yards from the end zone with 74 seconds to play in the shadowy din of a home stadium set to turn hostile.
Ten days ago, before Northwestern visited Memorial Stadium, most observers had left Nebraska out in the cold to die in the wake of a loss at Minnesota, stunning in how the Gophers punched Bo Pelini’s team square in the face and drew little response.
With two minutes left against the Wildcats on Nov. 2, the Huskers were all but buried despite a tenacious defensive performance over the final 2 ½ quarters.
Yet here they sit as mid-November arrives, riding a renewed sense of confidence ahead of a visit Saturday from Legends Division leader Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET/ABC-ESPN2).
This is old habit for the Huskers. Dig a hole, crawl inside, then as the walls appear set to collapse, find an escape route.
Nebraska punches its way out of a corner better than any team in the Big Ten. We’ve often wondered in Pelini’s six years about the identity of his teams. Maybe, after another dramatic victory on Saturday at Michigan -- the Huskers have won seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less -- it’s this: They’re a direct reflection of their coach, who for his all his faults, never stops fighting.
Pelini is a survivor. He thrives in averse situations, or so it seems. When the walls around him drew near in September after the ill-timed release of an embarrassing, two-year-old audio tape, he used the support of his former boss, Tom Osborne, to fend off critics and hunkered down for a rough week.
When his defense, bruised and confused by the likes of Minnesota, UCLA and Wyoming, faced a do-or-die moment against Northwestern, it responded just like Pelini had drawn it up.
Over the past two weeks among teams that have played twice, Nebraska’s defense ranks third nationally in allowing 250.5 yards per game.
No team, in two games this month, has fared better defensively on third down.
“We play for one another,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans said. “We’re never going to lay down for anybody. We’re tough. When you’re backs up against the wall, you have to come out fighting.
“That’s something we see from the coaching staff.”
Often, in the midst of a demanding time, it’s difficult to see what’s happening right in front of you.
Pelini said on Monday that he’s not sure if the Huskers’ resiliency reflects his persona.
“Hopefully, it’s reflective on the culture of our program,” he said.
The coach said he and his staff preach a culture of togetherness.
“Fight until the end,” he said, “no matter what happens.”
That message, above all others, gets through.
“Guys have embraced what our coaching staff has asked us to do,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “One of our big things is just stay the course. Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever get down on yourself. You’ve got to have a short memory when you play. That’s something they’ve instilled in us.”
Whatever they’re doing, it helped freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., starting away from home for just the second time, stare down the Michigan defense and its imposing crowd and convert a fourth down with a pass to Kenny Bell en route to the game-winning touchdown on Saturday.
It helped Evans, linebacker David Santos and budding star Randy Gregory at defensive end stuff back-to-back Northwestern runs in the red zone, forcing a field goal to keep the Huskers alive in the final minutes.
It helped backup QB Ron Kellogg III engineer a decisive drive that revived the Huskers’ season.
A formidable challenge arrives this week as the Spartans bring the nation’s top-ranked defense to Lincoln.
Nebraska crawled out of its hole last year to beat MSU, one of four double-digit deficits overcome by Pelini's team in Big Ten play. The Huskers, if nothing else this week, promise to fight.
“One of these weeks,” Qvale said, “we’ll be ahead in at the start the fourth quarter. That would be nice.”
With the inexperienced Armstrong and a patchwork offensive line, the Huskers look overmatched.
In other words, they're right at home.