There were definitely a few bumps along the way, but Nebraska and its new look offense got the job done in Saturday's much-anticipated debut against Tennessee-Chattanooga.
After a slow start, the Huskers finally got things going in first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck's scheme and ended the day with a 40-7 win over the Mocs to kick off the 2011-12 season.
"We're where I thought we were going in, which I just told the team means we have a long way to go," head coach Bo Pelini said. "We've got to become more efficient, really, in all phases of the game. Sometimes it hurt us, sometimes it didn't. We played undisciplined at times. We made some inexcusable, in my opinion, mental errors. The communication needs to get better. It's about where you usually are after your first week.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez had some ups and downs, but he ran for than 135 yards on 19 carries with three rushing touchdowns to lead the way for the offense. His passing numbers weren't quite as impressive, however, as he completed just 11-of-22 passes for 116 yards.
Martinez's 7-yard run for the game's first touchdown in the first quarter marked his first rushing score since last year's win at Kansas State in the fifth week of the season.
"I would have hoped for the offense to do a lot better than what it did today," Martinez said. "I don't think we came out very strong up front, and I think we have a lot to learn from. Hopefully the next game we do better."
Defensively, Nebraska was pretty stout all the way around, as it held UTC to just 230 yards of total offense and recorded three quarterback sacks with an interception. Junior defensive end Cameron Meredith led the charge, as he was everywhere on Saturday, racking up two sacks, intercepting a tipped pass and recovering a blocked field goal.
"I thought we did pretty well," Meredith said. "Of course there's some stuff we have to correct. I thought for our first game it was pretty solid out there. I thought we played pretty well."
The Huskers got on the board first on their second possession of the game, as running back Rex Burkhead broke a career-long 52-yard run on an option pitch down the left sideline to set up first-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
Martinez took the next play up the middle and fell into the end zone with 10:08 left in the first quarter.
Later on in the second quarter, Martinez struck again after audibling on a 4th-and-1 and keeping it around the left end for a 43-yard touchdown run to make it 20-0 with a little more than two minutes left in the half.
Junior kicker Brett Maher made all four of his field goals in the game, including kicks from 50, 48 and 34 yards out in the first half.
"I was pretty blessed to have a pretty good day," Maher said. "I didn't really have a lot of ups and downs, but I know it'll come throughout the year. Just have to keep working hard to try and duplicate that every week."
Chattanooga finally got the board in the third quarter, as quarterback B.J. Coleman found a wide open Marlon Anthony in the left corner of the end zone to make it 23-7 with 11:43 left in the quarter.
After Nebraska's ensuing drive stalled inside the UTC 5-yard line and had to settle a fourth Maher field goal, the defense stepped up big when defensive tackle Jared Crick tipped a Coleman pass and Meredith hauled it in at the Mocs' 3-yard line.
Burkhead scored on the very next play to put NU ahead 33-7, and there was no looking back for the Huskers from there.
Martinez broke off another big run with six minutes left in the third on an option keeper around the right side for 47 yards, which wrapped up the scoring for the day as both teams failed to put up another point in the game.
While the Huskers were by no means satisfied with their first game as members of the Big Ten Conference, they were happy to at least have a starting point for where they need to improve going forward the rest of the season.
Nebraska plays host to Fresno State next Saturday, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. CT.
"It was sloppy football and we have a ways to go," Pelini said. "I think it gives us a good benchmark of where we are, and now we have to work to get better. I told the guys in the locker room, now is the time to roll up your sleeves and go to work."
- Robin Washut
***Pelini said Martinez was rushing things at times in the passing game and not letting routes develop before tucking and running. He said Martinez would be fine now that he has some live game experience running the new offense to build on.
"I thought he was up and down," Pelini said. "I thought early in the game, Taylor was very anxious. He was really putting a lot of pressure on himself. I thought he was anxious. I thought, as the game went on, he let the game come to him, and that's when he becomes a better football player. I thought overall he had a pretty good first start. He didn't get a lot of help around him at times. We had some busts around him and things. But I think overall, not a bad day."
***Beck admitted he was a bit stubborn in his play calling, saying there were times when he called the same play several times in the hopes the offense would get it right as opposed to going with the flow of the game.
"I did some dumb things throughout the course of the game," Beck said. "I pounded my head against the wall saying we're going to work on a certain play, and I just kept running it. I want live work at it, and it probably wasn't very smart on my part, but I'm stubborn sometimes. I said we're going to this play and get it right, and I kept calling it."
***A few of those situations Beck was referring to in particular came when Nebraska was deep in UTC territory with a chance to score a touchdown, but instead settled for field goals.
"We've got to score touchdowns on those," he said. "Like I said, some of it was my stubbornness to some things I wanted to do. We've got to get better in that area for sure."
***In general, Beck said the offense was never able to click during the game, as poor play execution often times threw off drives with negative yardage plays.
"We've just got to execute," Beck said. "We never got into a rhythm. We never were really able to feel comfortable in certain situations. It felt like we were always playing behind the chains, and we always had to try to make a play on second and third downs. That's hard on you."
***Beck said he was pleased with most of what Taylor Martinez showed, but said the quarterback needed to show more patience in the pocket and more accuracy in his throws.
"I thought he played well," he said. "For the most part today his decisions, his checks and the things that he did, he looked in control of the game. I was proud of them there."
***Beck said he thought all of the freshmen that made their debuts on offense played hard and showed good flashes. He added that all of his players still had a long way to go, especially the younger guys.
"You're dealing with a young football team, and you don't really know how they're going to come out," Beck said. "I think early on, watching the game from the press box and evaluating the game, I think you could tell there was some nervousness in them."
***Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the defense was a bit rusty on Saturday, but it was good to get back on the field and in a live game situation.
"There was some good and some bad," he said. "We were a little rusty and made some mistakes out there, but throw those young guys out there and let them make some mistakes and improve. Embrace the failure and look at what they did wrong. But they did a lot of good things, too. I'm excited about the play of a lot of our new guys."
***Carl said linebacker Will Compton left the game with a "tweak" in his foot, but said he was unsure of the exact details of the injury. He said they kept Compton out to be on the safe side.
***Carl said walk-on Trevor Roach, who replaced Compton for most of the game, played well in the most extensive action of his young career. Carl said Roach was bit nervous early on, but stepped it up when he had to. Said Roach has been the No. 2 Mike linebacker since spring ball.
"He was nervous when he went out there, but just because this was his first time out there," Carl said. "He's been our No. 2 Mike for eight weeks including the spring. He's had a lot of snaps and a lot of reps and a lot of coaching. It was just good to see it carry over to the game."
***Carl said he wasn't surprised at all with the game Meredith, saying Meredith had a huge fall and was one of their best defensive players all offseason. Meredith said he's felt like a completely different player since having offseason shoulder surgery, as he essentially played all last season with an injured shoulder.
"Cameron's had a great camp," Carl said. "I knew Cameron was going to be a dynamic football player for us this year. He's faster, he's stronger, he's just more confident. He's going to be a heck of a football player for us all year."
***Carl said NU rotated as many as 10-12 defensive linemen in the game, which was something they wanted to do in order to get all of the depth they have at the position as many snaps as possible.
***While the defense had some bumps in the game, Carl said he was confident the unit would get its "swagger" back next week now that they have a game of experience under their belts.
***Carl said he loved what safety Daimion Stafford showed in his Husker debut, especially the huge hits Stafford laid on a couple UTC ball carriers. Carl said Stafford played just as hard as they hoped he would when they recruited him out of junior college.
"I thought he had a heck of a game," Carl said. "Again, not perfect, but just as casual observer I'd say he's every bit as physical a player I thought he was when I first saw him in junior college."
***Special teams coach John Papuchis said he couldn't be more pleased with Maher's performance, saying Maher was exceptional on all four made field goals and his average of 52.0 yards per punt on four punts.
"It wasn't the dream scenario that his first field goal would be from 50 yards out, but I guess if he's going to put it right down the middle, I can live with that," Papuchis said. "He did a really, really good job today in all aspects."
***Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said coaching from the coaches' box for the first time in 24 years was a little harder than he thought it would be, saying he missed being down on the field and interacting with his players in person. However, he said co-offensive line coach John Garrison did a great job being his voice on the sideline.
"I'll tell you what, I missed being around the guys," Cotton said. "It's hard to have to talk to them through another guy. John and I are close, and John does a great job, but just for selfish reasons I like to be around them and talk to them. When I saw them after the game, I must have told about seven or eight of them, I said, 'Man, I miss you guys.' It's something for me to get used to, too, and I need to do a better job up in the box, I'm sure."
***Tackle Tyler Moore became the first true freshman offensive lineman ever to start a season opener for Nebraska. Moore is only the fourth true freshman offensive lineman to start a game at any point in a season, and only the 10th true freshman offensive lineman to play at Nebraska.
***Along with Moore, sophomore right guard Spencer Long and sophomore left guard Andrew Rodriguez gave the Huskers three underclassmen starting on the offensive line in any game since 2008, and the first time ever in a season opener.
***Tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, receiver Quincy Enunwa, defensive end Jason Ankrah, cornerback Andrew Green all made their first career starts at Nebraska on Saturday.
***Running backs Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard, receiver Jamal Turner and kicker Mauro Bondi all made their Husker debuts as true freshmen against UTC. Abdullah had arguably the biggest impact, as he fielded all five punts for the Huskers and had four rushing attempts.
***Maher's four field goals on the day tied for the third-most in school history. Nebraska has had seven games with four or more field goals in the past four seasons, including six by Alex Henery and today's effort by Maher. Maher also made all four of his PAT attempts this afternoon, and averaged 52 yards on four punts.
***Martinez's three rushing touchdowns marked the fourth time in his career he has rushed for at least three scores in a game, including three TD runs in the season opener each of the past two seasons. Martinez has seven career touchdown runs that have covered at least 30 yards, including two in today's game.
***Fullback Tyler Legate ran the ball on Nebraska's opening snap, marking the first carry by a Nebraska fullback since Steve Kriewald had a carry against Colorado in the 2004 season finale.