Nebraska could not get out of its own way on fourth down for most of this season.

The Cornhuskers offense was 2-of-11 on fourth downs in 2018 entering the second half of Saturday’s game against Illinois.

That stat, and what happened on one extraordinary third-quarter drive against the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium, could well stand as an example of Nebraska’s season in microcosm.

The Cornhuskers converted three times on fourth down. Not just in that game or in the second half. But on one drive.

“Getting three first downs, our percentage is probably up to about 5 percent now,” Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost said after the game. “It’s good to see. We felt good about the plays we had designed for third-and-short, fourth-and-short, third-and-medium (situations).”

Frost, with his team leading 38-21 on its first offensive possession of the second half, went for it on fourth and 3 at the Illinois 42 yard-line. Quarterback Adrian Martinez got 4 yards on a run. That was a fairly conventional situation for a coach to go for it on fourth down: Short yardage to gain, but more to the point it’s too long for a field goal and too close to get very much of an advantage out of punting.

Three plays later, the Cornhuskers faced an identical fourth-and-3 situation. This time it was from the Illini 31. Teams with a lot of faith in their kickers usually try for a field goal from that spot. But Barret Pickering is 9-for-13 for the season and his longest field goal is 35 yards. So a 46-yarder was not happening on a cold, somewhat windy day.

Martinez came through again, this time hitting Stanley Morgan for a 6-yard gain.

Three more plays, one more decision. This time Nebraska had third and 18 when Martinez hit Devine Ozigbo for a 9-yard pass, setting up fourth and 9 from the Illinois 24. Again, the field goal try is the normal call here, and even considering his inconsistency Pickering has to be a candidate to try it from 41 yards.

Nothing doing.

In what might have been the Nebraska offense’s most critical play of the day, Martinez hit receiver J.D. Spielman for 20 yards and another first down.

After that, the drive was only ending one way.

Sure enough, on the next play Ozigbo punched it into the end zone on a 4-yard run for a 45-21 Cornhuskers lead. Illinois never got close after that.

Think of the level of confidence a coach has to have in his offense, and a true freshman quarterback, to make those decisions on one drive. Yes, Nebraska was facing a poor Illinois defense. But if any of those decisions had backfired, it could have been costly. As it was, the Illini offense had two more touchdowns left in it.

Who knows what could have happened had Nebraska failed on any of those plays. A 17-point deficit is not huge these days, certainly not with the way Illinois was moving the ball.

But Frost bucked the trends and the stats. And it led to the most points Nebraska has scored on a Big Ten opponent since the school joined the conference in 2011.

And Frost’s quarterback appreciated the confidence shown in him.

“I’m always confident, regardless of a down, regardless of a stage in the game,” Martinez said. “When we have Coach Frost and the guys that I have around us, I know what we’re capable of. It’s kind of up to me to make those right decisions. Thankfully, I did that there and some guys made some plays as well.”

For an offense which set a school record with its seventh straight 450-yard game, that confidence comes in all situations.

Even, finally, on fourth down.