Nebraska scores two touchdowns in nine seconds early in the second half. Washington falls to 2-1 on the season.

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LINCOLN, Neb. — The game was there for the taking. And then, in a flash, it was gone.

Or, as UW coach Steve Sarkisian said later, it simply melted away.

“The reality of it is we had a complete meltdown there in the third quarter where I think we lost our composure a bit,” he said after No. 11 Nebraska beat the Huskies 51-38 Saturday. “We got rattled.”

The cause were a couple of controversial calls that went against the Huskies and helped swing the game to the Cornhuskers, both flags for the rare penalty of interfering with a punt returner’s ability to catch the ball.

The first came near the end of the second quarter when an apparent Nebraska muff of a fumble that UW recovered at the 26 was negated. Instead of UW having a chance to score, Nebraska drove for a field goal to take a 20-17 halftime lead.

The next came at the beginning of the third quarter when Desmond Trufant was called for hitting a Nebraska punt returner after the officials ruled he had called fair catch. Combined with a subsequent penalty on UW’s bench for arguing the call, it gave Nebraska 20 yards and set up a Cornhusker touchdown that made it 27-17.

On the ensuing kickoff, UW true freshman Bishop Sankey — in the game because regular returner Jesse Callier was nursing a hamstring injury — fumbled. And when neither he nor Kevin Smith could control the ball, Nebraska recovered at the 1, scoring on the next play to make it 34-17.

While UW tried to come back, scoring three touchdowns in under six minutes in the fourth quarter, the game pretty much was settled there.

“I think we were still caught up in the emotion of that flag being thrown and a call earlier in the game where a ball bounced off their guy’s foot and we recover and we don’t get that ball,” Sarkisian said. “And so we got caught up too much in things we don’t have control over. We can’t control when flags are called or not called and we got caught too much in that and in the meantime Nebraska was playing sound football and getting after it.”

Nebraska then used its rushing attack to put the game away, gaining 309 yards on the ground, giving the Cornhuskers a measure of revenge for Washington’s 19-7 win in the Holiday Bowl. It also gave Nebraska something of a win in the three-game series between the two teams, including a 56-21 victory in Seattle last September. Washington’s six-game win streak came to an end.

UW players, though, didn’t seem as concerned with any of that as much as how let this game slip away.

“The game could have went entirely different if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot and the ref had a couple of calls go a different way,” said running back Chris Polk, who was his usual sterling self with 130 yards. “But that’s just the game of football. You can’t control that.”

This game was filled with big plays throughout.

Nebraska scored on its second play after a 50-yard Taylor Martinez to Kenny Bell pass put the Huskers at the 3. UW came right back to tie it on a 38-yard pass from Keith Price to Jermaine Kearse, though that elicited the first of nine Husky penalties — as well as the first the coaches questioned from what was a Big Ten officiating crew — when the Huskies were called for excessive celebration.

“I don’t understand it,” Sarkisian said.

UW had itself solely to blame for some errors. Price underthrew a pass that was picked off as the Huskies were nearing another score in the first quarter. And UW had an offsides penalty to negate a touchback following one touchdown, Nebraska then returning the ball 66 yards to set up a score.

“A lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian said he never really got an explanation of the call at end of the first half and wasn’t sure who it was called on.

Trufant said he simply didn’t think the Nebraska returner called for a fair catch on the interference in the third quarter.

“I didn’t see it (fair catch signal) so I just did my job,” he said. “I was looking at him the whole way. I just didn’t see it, so I just did what I was supposed to do. I guess they just seen it different.”

Said Sarkisian: “I felt like the guy caught the ball and we tackled him.”

Nebraska had held UW three-and-out on the previous drive, so the Huskies could have avoided the whole thing by moving the ball.

“They came out with their hair on fire and we went three and out,” said Polk. “So that’s something we have to work on.”

And once the game got away, the Huskies had trouble catching up to the Huskers, who had 217 rushing yards in the second half.

“They wore us down there pretty good, a couple of those drives in the third and fourth quarter where it took its toll on our guys,” Sarkisian said.

The Huskies also got beat up as a number of players suffered varying injuries, though none were considered serious. Among those was Price, who hurt his left knee, giving him two bad knees after he hurt his right one in the opener against Eastern Washington.

Price, though, vowed he will be 100 percent for UW’s Pac-12 opener against California, and that the Huskies will be, as well.

“I’m just happy that we kept playing,” Price said. “We didn’t give up.

“We still have a long ways to go for the Pac-12. But we will get it right. Trust me.”

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

QB Taylor Martinez vs. the Huskies
Date Result Comp Att Yds TDs Rush Yards TD
Sept. 18, 2010 @UW W, 56-21 7 11 150 1 19 137 3
Dec. 30, 2010 Holiday Bowl L, 19-7 7 9 53 1 14 23 0
Sept. 17, 2011 @Nebraska W, 51-38 10 21 155 2 17 83 1