Huskers roll past Arkansas State in 42-13 rout
Under different circumstances, Nebraska's 42-13 win over Arkansas State on Saturday would have been the perfect remedy after a tumultuous week coming off last week's loss to UCLA.
However, the health status of head coach Bo Pelini put damper on an otherwise solid all-around performance by the Huskers (2-1). Pelini was seen getting his pulse checked on the sideline during the second quarter, and told the ESPN2 television crew he wasn't "feeling well" during his halftime interview.
He did not return to the game for the second half, and reportedly was taken by ambulance to Bryan LGH Medical Center West in Lincoln. Fortunately, it sounded as if Pelini would be OK, and that he was hospitalized for precautionary reasons only.
"Everything is fine," Pelini said in a statement from the hospital. "They ran some precautionary tests and everything checked out just fine. I plan to be back at work tomorrow. I'm proud of our team and coaching staff for the way they responded this afternoon."
While all thoughts were on Pelini after the game, there was no denying the Huskers put on quite a showing on the field.
As expected, Arkansas State came out with a blistering offensive pace, getting snaps off with as many as 28-30 seconds left on the play clock at times. After a bit of adjusting to the tempo, though, Nebraska's defense settled in and blanked the Red Wolves on four their five possessions in the first half.
"To me, the greatest concern was how fast they tried to go," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "This is the fourth time that I've played against a Gus Malzahn offense, and there's a couple things you know about what they do. First of all, he's going to have a great initial script. He's going to do things you've never seen before. Lots of motions and shifts.
"We knew we had to survive that initial surge. You could see that first series, they kind of had us on our heels a little bit and moved the ball… Once we could settle in, we felt like we had a pretty good handle of how they were going to attack us. I was really pleased with the progress we made on defense."
Following a failed fourth-down conversion attempt by ASU to open the game, the Huskers marched right down the field on a nine-play, 51-yard scoring drive capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah.
Abdullah, who topped his previous career-high with 17 carries for 81 yards in the first half, touched the ball on six of NU's nine plays on the drive, including a 26-yard reception.
Abdullah ended the day with a game-high 167 yards and two touchdowns on 30 attempts.
After senior safety P.J. Smith picked off a trick play pass and then a Red Wolves punt, Nebraska put together its second touchdown drive of the day when junior quarterback Taylor Martinez connected with sophomore wide out Kenny Bell for a 42-yard score on an option pass play with just 30 seconds left in the first quarter.
Arkansas State finally got on the board with a 31-yard field goal by Brian Davis two minutes into the second quarter, but Nebraska would only continue to dominate the rest of the half from there.
Martinez found Bell again for a second touchdown pass on the ensuing drive, this time a 25-yard completion over the middle where Bell twisted and turned his way into the end zone, making it 21-3.
Martinez completed 13-of-14 passes on the day for 180 yards and two touchdowns, while Bell hauled in three passes for 71 yards and a pair of scores.
While the defense continued to keep the Red Wolves out of the end zone, the Huskers' offense kept on grinding to close out the half with one last touchdown. Nebraska held the ball for nearly the final five minutes of the half by running the ball nine times during a 10-play drive and punching it in on a 2-yard touchdown by Abdullah with just 35 seconds to go before halftime.
Abdullah carried the ball seven times on the drive. Overall, the Huskers ended the half with 278 yards of total offense (150 passing, 128 rushing), and held the potent Red Wolves to just 197 total yards.
Martinez, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday on Saturday, completed all eight of his passes in the first half, including two touchdown tosses.
As well as Nebraska played through the first two quarters, though, news of Pelini having to leave the game due to health issues at halftime put a cloud over the team going into the second half.
Some big mistakes didn't help matters, either, as Martinez fumbled on two of NU's first three drives of the third quarter, one of which being recovered by Arkansas State for a touchdown.
The first came with the Huskers backed up inside their own 15-yard line, as Martinez was blindsided by Shervarius Jackson for a sack and forced fumble, and the ball was recovered by Ryan Carrethers in the end zone for the Red Wolves' first and only touchdown of the day.
Martinez fumbled the ball away on Nebraska's next possession on what had been a promising drive, but the defense forced ASU to punt it away. On the punt, however, Abdullah lost the ball in the sun, and it hit off of his heel on the bounce and was recovered by the Red Wolves at the NU 15.
"The second half, we went through a bad spell of about three or four plays and turned the ball over," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "In the first half, we were uncharacteristic of that. We had penalties… Those are things that are going to hurt us, and will hurt any offense, and they showed a little bit in the third quarter. But then we were able to gain our composure again and finish the game out, for the most part, the way we wanted to."
Luckily for the Huskers the defense was able to bail them out once again, holding Arkansas State to a 32-yard field goal by Davis to cut the lead to 28-13 with 4:19 to go in the third.
That stand helped spark the offense, as Martinez engineered a 12-play, 57-yard drive that took over six minutes and ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Imani Cross to make it 35-13 with 12:50 remaining in the game.
Despite scoring 10 points in the third quarter, Arkansas State registered just 15 yards of offense without a single first down.
Nebraska's defense continued to lock down the Red Wolves' offense, and Martinez padded the score even more with an 18-yard touchdown run to make it 42-13 with just over nine minutes to play.
The Huskers will look to continue to build of Saturday's performance when they play host to Idaho State next week. Kickoff for that game is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.
Considering all that the Huskers had to deal with the past week - with the criticisms of their play in the loss to UCLA, to the sudden departure of defensive tackle Chase Rome, and then with Pelini's situation on Saturday - the coaching staff couldn't have been more proud of the way their players responded.
"You hear the term 'adversity' thrown around a lot in athletics, but the theme of this week was how are we going to respond," Papuchis said. "Going into the week, you think it's just responding to not playing well on the road, and that changed as the week went along. We went from not playing real well on the road and losing a game that you're so disappointed in losing, to having a little bit of attrition with your football team, to going into a game and playing fairly well in the first half and realizing that your leader wasn't feeling real well, coming out to play a second half and not really starting the second half real well, and then responding.
"There are so many life lessons that I think our guys can take from this. It's been a very trying and emotional week, and I'm glad to see the way our team fought today."