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Just for the sake alone of calming the nerves of Husker Nation, Nebraska desperately needed to come out with a strong performance at home against an overmatched Southern Miss squad on Saturday night. Needless to say, mission accomplished.
Behind a resurgent showing from the defense and a much more consistent offensive effort, the Huskers (2-0) made short work of the Golden Eagles (0-2) in what ended as a 56-13 victory in front of a crowd of 90,466.
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After giving 132 yards of offense in the first quarter, NU's defense held Southern Miss to just 147 yards the rest of the game, forced four turnovers and scored two touchdowns. On offense, the Huskers put up nearly 500 yards of their own and converted five of their first 11 drives into scores.
"We're excited about the win," head coach Bo Pelini said. "We made good progress and did a lot of good things out there tonight. By no means are we the finished product. There were a number of mistakes obviously, a lot of things we need to clean up. It was a lot cleaner than a week ago. I saw a lot of progress. I saw a lot better communication. I think our understanding of the game plan improved, so therefore our preparation improved. Every single day right now for this football team is important. Every day we walk out on the field to prepare. We can't miss an opportunity to get better. Like I said before, I like the potential with this group but it's a work in progress. We just got to keep working."
Having been heavily criticized all week for its late collapse against Wyoming, Nebraska's defense wasted no time in setting the tone for the rest of the night on the game's opening possession. Three plays into Southern Miss' first drive, senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste stepped in front of an Allan Bridgford pass and took it 43 yards for a pick-six. The play - which came just 1:13 into the game - was NU's quickest touchdown since its win over Washington in 2011.
The Golden Eagles got on the board with a 32-yard field goal by Corey Acosta, but the Husker offense quickly responded by marching 68 yards on 10 plays capped off with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to senior receiver Quincy Enunwa.
The Blackshirts struck again on the first play USM's ensuing possession, as senior nickel back Ciante Evans picked off Bridgford and ran it back 22 yards for a score. That play marked the first time Nebraska had two interception returns for scores since its win over Idaho in 2010, and all of a sudden NU found itself up 21-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The Huskers got on the board again later on in the second quarter, as they again put together a long and methodical drive with a 14-play charge, ending with a 3-yard touchdown run by junior running back Ameer Abdullah with seven minutes left in the half.
Acosta connected on another field goal from 45 yards out to cut it to 28-6, but Nebraska's offense continued to control the game and closed out the half with another touchdown in the final seconds. Martinez found junior wide out Kenny Bell in the end zone from 21 yards out, and Bell made a juggling catch with 12 seconds remaining to send the Huskers into halftime with a commanding 35-6 lead.
Southern Miss wasn't going to go down that quietly, though. On their first drive of the second half, the Bridgford hit Rickey Bradley on a 41-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 35-13 with 11:43 left in the third. The rally didn't last long, as Bell returned the following kickoff 63 yards to the USM 37, and Abdullah took it to the house on the very next play for a touchdown run to put NU back up 42-13.
Evans pulled in his second interception of the night two plays into Southern Miss' next drive, and Martinez hit sophomore receiver Sam Burtch over the middle for a 26-yard scoring pass on NU's first play to push the lead to 49-13. Later in the fourth, sophomore Imani Cross barreled his way into the end zone from 1-yard out to give the game it's final score.
Martinez ended his night early in the third quarter 15-of-23 passing for 170 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Abdullah rushed 17 times for a game-high 114 yards and two scores.
"The challenge was laid out there to them as to what we need to do to get better as a football team," Pelini said. "Trust me, there wasn't a guy on our football team that felt good about how we played a week ago, but I can also say this, there's not a guy in that locker room who is satisfied with our performance tonight. There's a lot more out there for this team and that's how it should be after week two and that's how it should be and that's why we practice."
While Nebraska was definitely feeling much better about things following Saturday night's win than it did a week ago, the first true test of the season now awaits, as UCLA comes to town next week for a nationally televised 11 a.m. kickoff on ABC. The Bruins (1-0) were off this week after defeating Nevada 58-20 in their season opener.