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In a game which no one had any idea what to expect from a Nebraska team that had gone through an emotional grinder the past week, the Huskers desperately needed to come out and play well against a scrappy but under-matched South Dakota State squad on Saturday.
While the game didn't exactly start out the way the Huskers had hoped, they eventually settled down and laid a 59-20 beating on the Jackrabbits that - if only for a brief moment - helped Husker Nation forget about the controversial leaked two-year-old audio rant by head coach Bo Pelini that surfaced on Monday and turned the program upside-down for a few days.
As if things weren't uneasy enough, NU also came into the game without four-year starter Taylor Martinez, who missed his first game since 2010 and snapped a 32-game starting streak due to a turf toe injury. Those worries were quickly put to rest, though, as the combination of redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg completed 20-of-24 passes for 305 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
In fact, Nebraska (3-1) ended up with its best overall offensive performance of the season, racking up 645 yards of total offense, including 335 on the ground, along with a staggering 34 first downs, both of which marking the most ever under Pelini. Despite a rough start for the defense, the Huskers eventually buckled down and held SDSU (3-1) to just three points in the final three quarters.
The day marked the first time in school history the Huskers have eclipsed 300 yards in both rushing and passing.
"I'm obviously glad for the win," Pelini said. "I'm really happy for those two quarterbacks. I thought they did really well. That was our best rhythm, offensively. I thought we came out and got done what we needed to get done."
It was only fitting that the wild week for the Huskers continued right on through the opening kickoff, as they got a mix of both highs and lows through the first two quarters.
Led by Armstrong, who got the start, Nebraska marched right down the field on its opening possession and took its first lead on a 5-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Imani Cross. However, South Dakota State answered four plays later with a 40-yard touchdown scamper right up the middle by Zach Zenner, who came into the game the leading rusher in both FCS and FBS with 180 yards per contest.
Armstrong picked up right where he left off on his second drive of the game, connecting with senior wide out Quincy Enunwa on a 33-yard third-down pass to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Cross. Once again, though, NU's defense failed to live up to its end of the bargain, letting the Jackrabbits go 71 yards in just 1:39 and tying it back up at 14-14 with a 3-yard scoring run by Zenner.
The Huskers then made the first big mistake of the day, as junior running back Ameer Abdullah fumbled at midfield to give SDSU the ball back at its own 45. Behind more tough running by Zenner, the Jacks moved it all the way down the Nebraska 4-yard line to set up first and goal, but some costly penalties and two straight sacks by David Santos and Avery Moss/Randy Gregory held it to a 48-yard field goal by Justin Syrovatka to give SDSU a 17-14 lead to close out the first quarter.
By the time the opening quarter finally came to a close, the Jackrabbits had put up 186 total yards with nine first downs, including 123 yards on 10 carries by Zenner. Zenner finished the day with 21 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've seen what they did," Pelini said. "They didn't do anything fancy. They didn't have to. When you don't line up right, they didn't need to do anything fancy. It wasn't anything magical that they did."
Abdullah made up for his fumble on NU's ensuing possession with his second rushing touchdown of the day from 1-yard out, sparking what would be a much-needed breakout quarter for the Huskers. Nebraska's defense followed up by forcing its first punt of the day, and Armstrong connected with receiver Sam Burtch for a 16-yard scoring toss to put the Huskers up 28-17.
Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste continued is stellar start to the season by picking off his fourth pass in the past four games to set up Kellogg, who came in for four series in the first half to Armstrong's three, for a 23-yard touchdown pass to wide out Tyler Wullenwaber two plays later for his first-career scoring reception.
"It all goes back to this summer when coaches were saying we have to capitalize," Armstrong said. "When our number is called, we always have to set the tone. That's the one thing we did. We set the tone for the defense. We went out there and capitalized on whatever we could do."
South Dakota State quickly drove deep into NU territory on its next possession, but failed to convert and turned it back over to Nebraska on downs. With 1:29 left in the half and no timeouts, the Huskers kept their foot on the gas and let Kellogg work the ball all the way inside the SDSU 20 to end the half with a 22-yard field goal by Mauro Bondi as time expired to make it 38-17.
The blistering offensive pace slowed down just a bit for both team in the third quarter, but Nebraska eventually bumped its lead up to 45-17 when true freshman running back Terrell Newby made his way into the end zone from 10 yards out with 4:15 left in the quarter for his first career touchdown.
"I thought they played fast and aggressive," Pelini said of his offense. "On the offensive side of the ball, we had an attack mentality, which is kind of the opposite as what we played defensively. We played on our heels and indecisive deffensively, where as offensively we had an attack mentality. A big part of this game is your mental approach. It's a huge part of this game. I think that our offensive coaches did a lot better job. I think that we condensed what we were doing. I thought it helped us. I thought we played fast offensively."
Just three plays into South Dakota State's next drive, Gregory jumped in front of a Austin Sumner pass for his first career interception and took it 33 yards to the house to make it 52-17.
After Nebraska reeled off 35 unanswered points, the Jackrabbits finally got back on the board with a 29-yard field goal by Syrovatka with 13 minutes left to play, but the damage had already been done. Newby punched in his second rushing touchdown of the day from 5 yards out on NU's next drive, and walk-on Ryker Fyfe took over the reigns at quarterback for the rest of the day.
With the win, the Huskers will have some good vibes going into the bye week next week before kicking off their Big Ten Conference schedule at home against Illinois on Oct. 5.
"We have to work on consistency," Pelini said. "It's an interesting mix of youth and experience on this team. The potential's there. As I say and will continue to say, every day we walk out onto the practice field for this team, it is important. We've got to continue to grow and we've got to continue to work better. That's all we can do. It's not about where you are, it's about where you're gonna be two weeks from now and then the next week after that.
"We keep progressing each week, we'll be fine. There can never be a sense of complacency with this team in any regards. That's not how we're going to reach the goals that we want to reach. We're nowhere near where we want to be. I bet you coaches across the country are saying the same thing I am. I don't know if they say it in public the way I do. At the end of the day, we've got a lot of work to do. All you can do is roll up your sleeves, go to work and try to make each day better."