In a game carrying enormous Big Ten Conference implications, Nebraska needed to come up with one of its best overall performances of the season in order to knock off No. 11 Michigan State.
That's exactly what the Huskers got in a 24-3 victory, which now puts them in the driver's seat in the Legends Division standings.
While offense was hard to come by for both teams, especially in the first half, Nebraska did what it needed to do and gave more than enough support to a defense that played arguably its best 60 minutes of the year.
Junior running back Rex Burkhead lived up to his "Superman" moniker, as he put the offense on his back with a career-high 35 carries for 130 yards and three total touchdowns. On the other side, MSU put up just 187 yards of total offense on 57 plays and had the ball for a little more than 11 minutes in the second half.
"I thought it was a pretty complete effort by our football team," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm proud of them. That was a good football team we played today, and I knew it was going to take a complete effort. I thought we got it. I'm proud of the way that defense stepped up today. Like I said, I thought we did a lot of good things in all phases of the game. We weren't perfect by any means, but that was a tremendous effort by our football team and I'm proud of them."
The game couldn't have started any better for Nebraska, as senior defensive back Lance Thorell jumped a third down slant route on Michigan State's first possession and returned it to the MSU 25-yard line.
From there, the Huskers pounded seven straight running plays and put up the game's first touchdown on a one-yard run by Burkhead.
While the Spartans continued to struggle to move the football, Nebraska got on the board again with a little over a minute left in the first quarter when receiver Tim Marlowe took a sweep out of the Wildcat formation 39 yards to the MSU one-yard line. However, the Huskers couldn't punch it in on three straight runs up the middle and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by kicker Brett Maher.
Michigan State managed to add a field goal with 1:38 left in the first half, but it came with the help of at least three huge breaks on the drive. First, NU cornerback Andrew Green came inches away from snagging a pitch out of the air and taking it to the house.
The next play, safety Austin Cassidy was called for a questionable defensive holding penalty in the end zone for another Spartan first down. The worst of all came on the final offensive play of the drive, as safety Daimion Stafford dropped one of the easiest interceptions he could ever see, negating what likely would have been a pick-six.
When all was said and done, the two teams had combined for a grand total of 185 yards of total offense at halftime, including just 27 passing yards. The Huskers completed just one pass - a shovel pass to tight end Ben Cotton for no gain - and ended with zero passing yards in the first half.
"I just think early we missed some things," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "I didn't want to put them in bad situations. We were in a lot of third-and-longs early, and kind of feeling them out and setting some things up for later in the game. We figured it was going to be a 15-round bout. It wasn't going to be a one-swing hit and knock them out. So we figured we better figure out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it, because when we need it we've got to be able to call it. I think in the second half, we did it."
Nebraska got back in a rhythm offensively to open the third quarter, though. The Huskers came out and put together a 14-play, 80-yard drive that took up 5:28 and was capped off by Burkhead's second rushing touchdown of the day from one yard out.
The touchdown was initially ruled a fumble recovered by Michigan State, but replays showed not only Burkhead was down, but that he got the ball over the goal line for the score.
As the defense continued to shut down Cousins and the Spartan offense, Burkhead led the way for another touchdown drive with a relentless individual effort. The Plano, Texas, native touched the ball nine times during a 12-play, 89-yard scoring march, including a 27-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route down the left side to put NU up 24-3 at the end of the third quarter.
"It was a great win," Burkhead said. "Our offensive line did a tremendous job up front. Tyler Legate and the receivers out wide really got after them. It was a great win for us and hopefully gives us some momentum going for the rest of Big Ten play."
After carrying for the eighth time late in the drive, Burkhead went down and gingerly limped to the sideline. He came back just two plays later, and found his way into the end zone for the third time of the day on his first play back.
"Rex, unless he's on crutches, he's going to be out there," Pelini said. "He's going to be out there fighting. Like I said, the guy's a warrior. You can't ask for much more than what he gives this football team."
Michigan State had one last chance to spark a comeback when they drove down inside the NU 20, but the Spartans failed to convert on a fourth-and-long and turned it over on downs.
Now in first place in the Legends Division, the Huskers will try to keep their run going when they play host to Northwestern next week in a 2:30 p.m. start. At the moment though, NU is exactly where it hoped it would be at this point - in complete control of its own destiny.
"We've got a lot of work to do, a ton of work to do," redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell said. "But we're looking forward to getting that work done and hopefully heading to Indianapolis."
Burkhead's performance one for the books
It's easy to look at Burkhead's play on Saturday as one of the biggest reasons for Nebraska's success, but it takes on even more significance when put into historical perspective.
His 35 carries on the day were not only a career-high, they were the third most all-time by a Husker in a single game and the most since Cory Ross rushed 37 times against (coincidentally) Michigan State in the 2003 Alamo Bowl.
His 130 yards on the day marked his fifth 100-yard game in the past six weeks, and jumped him up four spots on Nebraska's career rushing list up to No. 22 at 2,179. Burkhead, who ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing coming into Saturday's game, now has 882 rushing yards on the year, and he's just 26 yards away from breaking into the school's top-20 career rushing chart.
What has made Burkhead even more valuable this season has been his production in the second half when the game is on the line. On Saturday, 80 of his 130 yards came in the second half, including 64 yards on 14 carries in the third quarter alone.
He's now averaging 72.6 yards in the second and third quarters over the past seven games.
"He's an amazing player and he does it week in and week out," quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "I'm glad he's on our team."
Defense getting its swagger back
Nebraska's defense definitely wasn't the same unit Husker fans had come to know through the first five and a half games of the season.
Ever since senior linebacker Lavonte David's strip and recovery to spark a 21-point comeback against Ohio State, though, the unit has been lights out.
Starting with that play, the Huskers' players and coaches say the defense has picked up a bit of swagger and confidence, which has led to much improved play on the field. After Saturday's utter dominance of Michigan State, that confidence is undoubtedly higher than ever.
"I think it started in the second half against Ohio State," Stafford said. "We had to start shutting it down, and then it just carried on. We worked hard through the bye week, got through Minnesota, and with the preparation this week, we got through Michigan State. We prepared great and we played great."
Said senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard:
"Oh yeah, I think our swagger is coming back for our defense. I think everybody was doubting us so we were just trying to show the world that our defense is back."
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the resurgence started with David's play, but really got going during the following bye week. Pelini said the coaching staff treated the bye as a second fall camp, evaluating the unit's mistakes from the first half of the season and zeroing on make corrections and adjustments.
"Since the bye week I've been saying it," Pelini said. "Everybody wanted to temper what we did last week and say 'well it was Minnesota', but the truth of the matter is we've been practicing well and we've playing well since the bye week. I kept telling our guys, 'I know we're ready to take that jump now. We're ready. We've just got to put it on the field on Saturday.'
"I wasn't surprised by how we played today. I really kind of expected it after the last few weeks of practice that we've had."
***With their dominant performance, several players said Carl Pelini informed the defense that they would be receiving their Blackshirts when the team returns to practice on Monday.
***Carl Pelini said Andrew Green got the start at cornerback over Stanley Jean-Baptiste partly because Jean-Baptiste had been dealing with tendonitis in his knee all week, but also because Green had a great week of practice in his own right.
"Andrew Green got the start and had an awesome game," Pelini said. "The light bulb came on for Andrew on Wednesday or Thursday of last week. He just looked really good in practice, and on a gut (feeling) we just went with Andrew as our starter, and he showed why. He had a great game, and he's really coming along."
***Nebraska incorporated a new look with its defensive line on passing situations, as the Huskers had their four linemen up and roaming around the line of scrimmage before the snap. Defensive end Cameron Meredith said Carl Pelini showed the defense the strategy, which he picked up from the Pittsburgh Steelers, earlier in the week, and said the players didn't know what to think of it at first. Seeing how NU managed four sacks without running a single blitz (according to Pelini and John Papuchis), the scheme worked pretty well.
***Another reason why Nebraska's defense was so successful was because they were so well prepared for what Michigan State did offensively. Several players said they knew what the Spartans were going to run well before the snap.
"Pretty much whatever they lined up in we knew what was coming," Stafford said. "That's what made it so easy for us to capitalize on it."
***Senior left tackle Jermarcus Hardrick said he felt his left foot "pop" when he went down and had to leave the game for a few plays. He said he was still in pain well after the game, but there was no way he was going to stay on the sidelines in such a pivotal game.
"It scared me more than anything," Hardrick said. "I didn't think they were going to let me back, but I just knew my teammates would have done it… It's probably the most pain I've played a game with. Even when I broke my hand, it was worse than that."