It was a game that started off looking like a potential loss, then a blowout win, and then a near catastrophic collapse for Nebraska, but in the end, Saturday's game against Washington ended in the only thing that matters - a 51-38 victory.
After struggling through the first half, the Huskers came storming out of the locker room in the third quarter and eventually jumped out to a 44-17 lead behind 27 unanswered points. Just when it seemed NU was going to cruise to its third win of the season, the Huskies' offense woke up in a big way.
Washington ended up out-scoring Nebraska 21-7 in the fourth quarter, and it wasn't until senior safety Austin Cassidy intercepted a pass from UW quarterback Keith Price with 1:32 left in the game that the Huskers could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
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"I love the way we came out as a football team to start the second half," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I don't like the way we finished. Defensively, I thought we relaxed a little bit. We did a couple boneheaded things there at the end. I like where we are right now. We're 3-0, and the process continues. We'll keep getting better, there's no question in my mind."
When all was said and done, Nebraska had racked up 464 yards of total offense, including a season-high 309 on the ground. Junior running back Rex Burkhead led the charge, finishing with 120 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 22 carries, the majority of which coming in the second half.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez hard arguably his best game of the year as well, rushing for 83 yards and a score while completing 10-of-21 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
The only problem was Washington's offensive numbers were just as good. The Huskies put up 420 yards of offense of their own, led by 130 rushing yards by running back Chris Polk and 274 yards and four touchdowns through the air by Price.
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini was obviously frustrated with his defense's performance on Saturday, but he was confident the second-half collapse was not a sign of bigger problems looming for Huskers.
"We let down I think in two areas: (special) teams and defensively," Carl Pelini said. "We've just got to finish the game off. They threw a lot at us offensively; structurally, shifts, motions, all those things, and we had some young guys out there trying to adjust. They matured as the game went on, but I think we backslid a little bit there in the end in terms of how we were matching up."
The first half was about as back and forth as things could get, as every big play by Nebraska was quickly answered by the Huskies.
The Huskers struck on the very first offensive play of the game when Martinez hit redshirt freshman Kenny Bell on an option pass for a 50-yard game down to the Washington 3. Martinez then rolled out and found fullback Tyler Legate for the touchdown on the ensuing play to put NU up 7-0 after just 26 seconds of play.
It didn't take Washington long to respond, though, as Price connected on three straight passes on the next drive, capped off by a 38-yard strike to senior wide out Jermaine Kearse to tie it up.
After a pair of punts by both teams, the Huskers reclaimed the lead on a 44-yard field goal by junior Brett Maher, converted all three of his kicks in the game to remain perfect on the season.
Just when it looked like Nebraska's defense was beginning to slow down the Huskies, a muffed punt by freshman Ameer Abdullah gave Washington the momentum right back. The Huskies regained possession at the NU 23-yard line, and Price hit Kearse again for a 6-yard scoring toss to give them a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Both of Kearse's touchdowns came against sophomore Andrew Green, who started his third game in a row in place of the injured Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard suited up for the first time all year, but did not see the field.
Shortly after Abdullah gave Washington a gift on a special teams mistake, he made up for it by taking back the ensuing kickoff 66 yards before finally being tracked down at the Husky 34. Abdullah was injured on the play, however, and he did not return to the field for the rest of the game.
The Huskers made the most of Abdullah's big return, as Martinez dropped a perfect pass to freshman Aaron Green along the left sideline for Green's first collegiate touchdown and gave Nebraska a 17-14 lead with 12:17 left in the first half.
"I haven't had too many opportunities, but I knew as soon as I got my chance, I was going to try and make the most of it to contribute to the team," Aaron Green said. "That's what I did today. I tried my best, and we came out with the win."
Washington tied it back up three minutes later on a 40-yard field goal by Erik Folk, but the Huskers went into the locker room with the momentum and the lead when Maher hit a 35-yarder as time expired in the half to make it 20-17.
Nebraska came out hot to start the second half, as the defense forced a three-and-out and the offense marched its first drive of the half into the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run Burkhead.
On the following kickoff, Washington mishandled the return, and the ball bounced around until Nebraska's Mathew May jumped on it at the 1-yard line. Burkhead pounded his way back in for a touchdown on the very next play, and suddenly the Huskers found themselves up by a commanding 34-17 advantage.
"I still thought we had a pretty good first half, but we just really got it going in the second half," Burkhead said. "Coach (Tim) Beck was very confident in what we had going. Taylor really took control of the offense and made audibles when he needed to. We made some adjustments, but it really came down to execution."
Nebraska had a chance to really put the Huskies in the hole when it drove all the way down inside the UW 10 on its next possession, but the Huskers settled for another Maher field goal, this time from 29 yards out, to go up 37-17 with 7:20 left in the third quarter.
The Huskers ended up rushing for 131 yards in the third quarter alone, resulting in 17 points and six rushing first downs.
After stuffing the Huskies on a fourth down conversion attempt on the next drive, Nebraska's offense responded by pounding it up the field with the running game for a 6-yard touchdown run by Green. The highlight of the drive was a 36-yard run on a trap up the middle by Legate, recalling images the old option days.
It seemed as if the game was all but wrapped up at that point, but the Huskies weren't quite finished just yet. Polk scored with just over 10 minutes left in the game to make it 44-24, and after a three-and-out by Nebraska, Washington scored again on a touchdown pass to James Johnson.
Suddenly, it was a 10-point game with 7:21 still left on the clock, and Washington had all three of its timeouts.
"That was, I don't know, I guess maybe people letting up," junior linebacker Will Compton said. "I don't know. All those yards and points, that's unacceptable. We're not at all happy with that. We should've kept them at 17, but we didn't do that."
Needing to come with a big drive, the Huskers' offense responded with another touchdown drive, this time on a pretty bootleg run my Martinez, who waltzed into the end zone untouched.
As quickly as the offense scored, though, the defense gave it right back when Price hit Johnson down the seam for another touchdown to bring it back to 51-38 with 4:27 remaining.
The Huskers recovered the onside kick, and then turned to Burkhead to grind out the bulk of the clock and finally put the game away. However, Burkhead was stuffed on a 4th-and-3, and the Huskies got the ball back with 2:51 left in the game.
Washington drove the ball up to midfield, but the rally came to an end when Price overshot Kearse on a deep pass down the sideline and Cassidy came down with the game-clinching interception.
"It was a good win," Bo Pelini said. "A good win for our football team, and I'm excited about being 3-0. I just told this team, the beautiful part about it is there's a lot more out there for us. We can get a lot better in every phase. I'm seeing some progress, we just need a little bit more consistency. I think our young guys are coming of age a little bit in some areas. That's a good win against a pretty good football team. They threw a lot at us."
Next up for Nebraska is its first road game of the season, as it travels out to take on Wyoming (3-0) next week in Laramie, Wyo.
Coaches say defense made progress in rough outing
It's somewhat odd to hear a coach say his defense made progress after giving up 38 points and more than 400 yards of offense, but that's just what Carl Pelini thought when evaluating his unit after the win.
"It's a step forward, no question," Carl Pelini said. "We played better this week than last week. There was a point in that game, especially second quarter, third quarter, where we really showed the type of defense we can be, and then we let down a little bit, which is disappointing. But it's a win. It's a Division I win against an awfully good football team, and I'm going to enjoy this one."
For most fans, Nebraska's second half collapse defensively raised a big red flag regarding its inability to close out games. Not only that, the way Washington's offense moved the ball against the Huskers in the first half wasn't much better.
Still, both Carl and Bo Pelini said the game would serve a good learning tool for their young defense, especially its young players in the secondary like cornerbacks Andrew Green and Ciante Evans.
"I'd like those guys to be more aggressive and to play with more confidence, but the fact that they're not right now is understandable," Carl Pelini said. "They're young, and that confidence comes. You can't get them enough game snaps."
Overall, Bo Pelini said he was pleased with the way his defense performed against Washington's unique and high-powered offense.
"I thought we did a good job up until early in the fourth quarter," Bo Pelini said. "I thought once we kind of settled in, we were OK. We kind of withstood the onslaught, and we knew it was going to be that way. We knew they were going to run their script and they were going to give us some things that were different. I think our guys, especially defense, might have been a little too keyed up to start the game. You've got to find that happy medium.
"Like I said, I thought we settled down and played pretty good football for a while."
- Robin Washut
Running backs lead the way
Saturday was a breakout day for a number of Nebraska running backs, as the backfield carried the Huskers the entire game and especially in the second half.
Burkhead's performance pretty much goes without saying, as he certainly lived up to his nickname of "Superman" with his clutch running down the stretch. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck and running backs coach Ron Brown both couldn't say enough about Burkhead's play against Washington.
"It's great to hand him the ball and say go get it," Beck said. "How many times can you say what a great kid and competitor and a leader and just a great human being that he is. He's admired by the football team and the coaches. I admire him. He's a hard-working, tough guy."
"The guy's just a tremendous all-around football player. Every game he plays is pretty much a breakout game because he does so many things for us… I feel that every time he's on the field he brings something to the table."
It wasn't just Burkhead who came up big for the Huskers, as true freshmen Aaron Green and Braylon Heard both had the best games of the their young careers on Saturday.
Along with his first career touchdowns, Green ended up with five carries for 36 yards and one catch for his 25-yard score. Heard also put in some good snaps, carrying five times for 34 yards.
Don't forget about the fullback Legate, who caught the game's first touchdown and broke a 36-yard run.
"That just goes to show you the weapons we have and how we use them," Beck said. "(They) didn't even play much last game. We had the opportunity to put them in, and those guys made plays. We have a lot of guys who can make some plays, so it makes us dangerous to be able to have guys like that."
***Carl Pelini said Dennard could have played if he had to on Saturday, but the coaching and training staffs decided to play it safe and hold him out.
"I'd say Alfonzo is about 95 percent," Carl Pelini said. "Watching him, he can backpedal, he can come out of his plant, he can do everything until he goes to really, truly open it up, and that last five percent is more mental than physical. He's got to trust it. We probably could've played him, but just decided as a staff that probably the best thing for him would be one more week of rest."
***Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said Nebraska rotated eight different linemen regularly against Washington after playing just six guys last week against Fresno State. He said center Mike Caputo and right guard Spencer Long played the entire game, while the Jermarcus Hardrick, Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and Marcel Jones all rotated at tackle and Seung Hoon Choi and Brandon Thompson rotated at left guard. Cotton said he rotated those positions after ever two series.
***On Choi, who made his first start on Saturday, Cotton said the fact that he held his own and didn't make any obvious mistakes said a lot about his performance.
"I'm really proud of the guy, because he went in there and there wasn't any false starts, there wasn't any holding, we did move the football, we scored 51 points," Cotton said. "So I think the eight guys who played, I would hope to see on film that they did a pretty decent job."
***Beck said he was waiting for the perfect time to call the fullback trap play that Legate almost took the house. In fact, Beck said he told Legate at halftime that it would be a big play whenever he chose to call it.
"We saw it was there, and we were just waiting for the right time to call it," Beck said. "I was scared he couldn't run for a touchdown, and I was right, he couldn't run for a touchdown. I was teasing him; I told him at halftime that it was coming, and it was going to be a big one. I was waiting to get a little closer so he could score."