Garrett Gilbert got the Longhorns out to a two-touchdown lead in the first half and their defense shut down Taylor Martinez to key a 20-13 upset Saturday, a crushing first defeat for a fifth-ranked Cornhuskers team that was out to avenge last year's loss in the Big 12 championship game.
"They had more pressure on them today than us, and that's unusual," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "I thought their fans hung in there with them. But I could feel some of their fans, when we got up 10-0 thinking, 'You've got to be kidding, not again."'
The Huskers and the Nebraska faithful had been pointing to this game for 10 months, since last year's conference title game ended with one second put back on the clock - enough time for the Longhorns to kick the winning field goal and sneak away with a 13-12 victory.
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The stakes became even higher after Nebraska announced over the summer that it was moving to the Big Ten next year.
Suddenly, this looked like the Huskers' last chance to beat a Texas program that had dominated them since the inception of the Big 12.
Barring a rematch in the conference championship game, Texas will have won nine of 10 meetings against the Huskers since 1996, with Nebraska's only win coming in the 1999 title game.
"We'll let the fans feel sorry for what happened," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. "We have to take an experience like this and have it make us stronger. I know our team has a lot of character."
Texas (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) came as a 9 1/2-point underdog after two straight losses. But the Longhorns surprised Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) by turning Gilbert loose in the run game for the first time this season.
Though no one will confuse Gilbert the runner with Texas greats Vince Young or Colt McCoy, the sophomore picked up 71 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He flummoxed the Huskers with quarterback draws and scrambles.
"We've been encouraging Garrett to make yards with his feet. He did that today," Brown said. "He maybe doesn't look like Vince or Colt when he's running the ball, but he's effective. We've got to keep him doing that. It's better for us when he can move his feet."
Garrett said he has no problem letting his legs do the work.
"I feel comfortable running it," he said. "It was probably just a little bit bigger part of the game plan this week. The offensive line did a great job of opening up some creases and we were able to find some yards."
The Longhorns stymied a Nebraska offense that had been averaging 494 yards a game, holding the Huskers to just 202 yards. Still, the Huskers were within a touchdown late in the game thanks to Eric Hagg's school-record 95-yard punt return.
Martinez, who came in averaging 147 yards a game and almost 11 yards a carry, was held to a season-low 21 yards on 13 carries before being pulled for Zac Lee in the third quarter.
Texas defensive lineman Sam Acho said he and his teammates tuned out any talk of a grudge match with the Huskers.
"Outside people have been saying things, but all we did was work hard the last two weeks," he said. "Taylor Martinez, first of all, is an unbelievable athlete. He came into the game with 12 touchdowns, leading the NCAA and he's a Heisman candidate with his legs. So we just went to responsibility football. He gashed us a couple of times, but we just stayed in our gaps and tackled."
Texas certainly wasn't prolific offensively, gaining 271 yards. But it did enough, and then with the Longhorn defense holding the Huskers' ground game in a check, Nebraska receivers dropped what would have been three touchdown passes.
A wide-open Rex Burkhead couldn't hang on to what would have been a 30-yard TD in the second quarter. Niles Paul dropped what would have been an 11-yard score in the third quarter and Brandon Kinnie what would have been a 38-yarder in the fourth.
"Pretty obvious, isn't it?" Pelini said. "We had opportunities to make plays. We didn't make plays. They did. They won the football game."
The Memorial Stadium crowd came to life after Hagg returned Justin Tucker's pooch punt 95 yards to pull the Huskers to 20-13 with 3:02 left. Jared Crick bumped Blake Gideon out of the way after Hagg fielded the punt, and LaVonte David's block on Alex Okafor removed the final obstacle to Nebraska's first touchdown in eight quarters against the Longhorns.
Texas was able to run out the clock, however, with Gilbert taking a knee twice inside the Nebraska 10.
Martinez came into the game drawing attention as a Heisman candidate but was thrown for losses or no gain on four of his first 11 runs and was ineffective on the zone-read option.
Martinez took an intentional grounding penalty on his first pass attempt, threw behind and short of his receivers and fumbled twice, though he or a teammate recovered each.
The Longhorns led 10-0 after Keenan Robinson recovered Roy Helu Jr.'s fumble at the Nebraska 21. Gilbert bounced off safety Rickey Thenarse for 10 yards before he faked a reverse handoff to receiver John Chiles and jogged into the end zone untouched from 3 yards.
Texas made it 17-3 after Thenarse called for a 15-yard facemask and then failed to wrap up on a tackle, allowing Fozzy Whittaker to turn a short pass into a 41-yard gain. Gilbert sneaked over the goal line from the 1 three plays later.
A late hit by Mathew May on Curtis Brown's punt return and pass interference on Prince Amukamara set up Justin Tucker's second field goal, a 28-yarder that put the Longhorns up 20-3 in the third quarter.
With the upset, Texas avoided losing three straight regular-season games for the first time in Mack Brown's 13 years as head coach.