LINCOLN, Neb. — Last year, Nebraska lost games on a Hail Mary, a field goal with 4 seconds left, a touchdown with 10 seconds left and another on a field goal in overtime. The Cornhuskers also led in the fourth quarter of another loss.
It is no surprise that one of the themes of 2016 was to become a team that finishes strong. So far, few teams have been as dominant in the fourth quarter as the 10th-ranked and unbeaten Huskers.
Nebraska, which will be trying for its first 6-0 start since 2001 when it visits Indiana on Saturday, has outscored its five opponents 78-6 over the last 15 minutes of games. The 72-point margin is the widest in the FBS. Arizona State is second at plus-64.
“We don’t know how close the game may be, so we have got to make sure that going into that fourth quarter that we have that same attitude as we had in the first three,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.
Nebraska has trailed in the fourth quarter in two games. Down 32-28 with 10 minutes left against Oregon, the Huskers took the lead on an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, and the defense stuffed the Ducks on their last possession to secure a 35-32 win .
The Huskers entered the fourth quarter against Illinois behind 16-10 and scored three straight touchdowns. The Huskers demoralized the Illini with an 18-play, 75-yard drive that took almost 11 minutes off the clock. The defense held Illinois to 18 yards on 10 plays in the fourth quarter, and Nebraska won 31-16 .
Nebraska led just 24-17 entering the fourth quarter against Wyoming, then capitalized on turnovers to outscore the Cowboys 28-0 the rest of the way in a 52-17 win .
“We certainly haven’t always been pretty,” coach Mike Riley said, “but I like our team a lot in what we’ve done and how we continue to play throughout the game. Sometimes it doesn’t look very good, or the other team is threatening, but our team keeps its poise and plays its best ball in the fourth quarter.”
Only Arizona State (106), Washington State (91), Tennessee (90) and TCU (83) have scored more fourth-quarter points than Nebraska. The Huskers’ six points allowed in the fourth are the fewest besides Ohio State and Baylor, neither of which has allowed a fourth-quarter point.
The Huskers have committed no turnovers in the fourth quarter and are controlling the clock, averaging 9:43 in possession time.
Last year’s crushing 14-13 loss at Illinois was a signal that the Huskers weren’t tough enough at the end of games. Before that, they had lost to BYU on a Hail Mary at home and to Miami on the road in overtime after coming back from a 30-10 deficit.
But against the Illini, a team that won just two Big Ten games, the Huskers squandered a 13-0 fourth-quarter lead and let Illinois drive 72 yards in the last minute to beat them. Narrow losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern followed.
The Huskers approached their offseason workouts with the mindset that they wanted to be the strongest team, physically and mentally, at the end of games.
“I think having that as an emphasis of our work ethic throughout the offseason was huge,” Armstrong said. “It played a big role in how well we prepared this offseason, spring ball and fall camp and summer conditioning. So we knew exactly what we needed to focus on throughout the season because of how poorly we did in the fourth quarter last year.”
This version corrects Arizona State’s fourth-quarter points to 106.
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