It wasn't made official to the fan base until the starting lineups were announced just minutes before kickoff on Saturday, but the day Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg had been waiting for finally came when senior quarterback Taylor Martinez was ruled out for Nebraska's game against South Dakota State.
Though the two backup signal callers knew as far back as Monday that Martinez would likely miss the game with a turf toe injury, Armstrong said he didn't learn he was actually getting the start until head coach Bo Pelini told reporters he would following Thursday's practice. Judging from the Huskers' 59 points and 645 yards of offense against the Jackrabbits, he and Kellogg more than rose to the challenge.
"It felt great," Armstrong said. "Coach told me that I worked hard for it and that Ron and I were going to switch out. It was a fun experience for us both. We just went out there and both learned and took it out on the field."
By the time the final whistle was blown, both Armstrong and Kellogg had put up impressive numbers in their opportunities with Martinez on the sideline. Armstrong finished 12-of-15 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown along with 38 yards rushing, while Kellogg was 8-of-9 for 136 yards and a score.
What stood out even more than their stat lines was the efficiency both quarterbacks showed in running the offense. Armstrong and Kellogg each played five drives in the game, and those 10 possessions resulted in seven touchdowns and a field goal. The only two of their drives that didn't end in points came after fumbles by Ameer Abdullah in the first quarter and by Kenny Bell in the third.
Armstrong led NU to four touchdowns, while Kellogg led NU on three touchdown drives and a field goal as time expired to end the first half.
"You have to make plays. I thought they did that," Pelini said. "They managed the game well. They both played with a lot of confidence and walked into that huddle with a lot of swagger. I think that's important for that position."
Pelini said he anticipated Martinez would be ready to return to his starting role by the time Nebraska returned to action in two weeks against Illinois, but didn't rule out the chance that the senior who had started 32-consecutive games prior to Saturday might be forced to sit out. If that's the case, both Armstrong and Kellogg said they would be more than ready to take over the reigns of the offense once again.
"Whoever is the better quarterback during the week should go out and play regardless of Taylor being the starter or not," Kellogg said. "The worst case scenario is that if Taylor gets hurt, we have to rely on Tommy and me to go out there and work the offense to get a victory. In my opinion, it doesn't really matter to me. I'll be a supporter of anyone who goes out there."
- Robin Washut
Pelini calls defensive mistakes inexcusable
Pelini had barely even started his opening statement during his post-game press conference when he began stressing his severe displeasure with the play of his defense on Saturday. After already getting torched by the likes of Wyoming and UCLA this season, Nebraska couldn't find an answer for South Dakota State's running game early on and actually trailed 17-14 at the end of the first quarter.
While the Huskers eventually settled in and held the Jackrabbits to just three points from the second quarter on, Pelini said the 465 yards of total offense and 227 rushing yards they gave up to an FCS-level opponent was something that simply could not happen again.
"I thought that was our worst performance defensively for a lot of different reasons," Pelini said. "The number of missed assignments and just basic things, there's just no excuse for. I just told the defense that they have to make up their mind of what we're going to be and how we're going to approach it. We can't play like that. We have a lot of work to do, and it starts with us coaches.
"It wasn't anything fancy that hurt us. We hurt ourselves. We didn't play with technique. We didn't play fundamentally. In the end, we didn't play nearly as well as what our standard needs to be. I don't want to take away from the win, but we need to make a big jump from now to two Saturdays from now."
SDSU running back Zach Zenner had his way with Nebraska's front seven most of the day, especially early on. Zenner finished with 21 carries for 202 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and 123 of those yards came in the first first quarter alone. Pelini said it came down to just bad execution and mental mistakes from NU's defense, which have been issues for the unit all year long.
"We tackle in practice," Pelini said. "You stress it. You drill it. You do tackling drills. I just told our guys, 'Let's face it, guys. There has to be a mentality. You have to have a certain kind of mentality when you take the field.' I just feel like sometimes, we're sitting back, taking it. There has to be a sense of urgency. A big part of playing defense is having an attitude. Right now, we don't have the right attitude. That starts with us as coaches. We've got to coach it better."
The good news for the Huskers is they have two full weeks to try and get their defensive mistakes corrected before they open their Big Ten Conference slate at home against Illinois on Oct. 5.
"You've got to have a killer instinct," Pelini said. "In football, no one's going to give you anything. You've got to take it. You've got to earn it. If you don't have that kind of approach, it's not going to work out well for you. Right now, that's how we're playing. We're not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up. There has to be a sense of urgency. For some reason, that isn't the case right now.
"That's the first thing that we need to get fixed. It's the attitude, the sense of urgency you've got to take the field with. Then, of course, the execution part of it - the focus, the discipline, the missed assignments - there's no excuse for them. None. I'm tired of seeing it and we need to get it fixed."
- Robin Washut
Gregory's score not a surprise to the coaches
When Randy Gregory returned to the sidelines following his pick six late in the third quarter, he was expectedly mobbed by teammates. But the congratulations were accompanied by a surprising rebuke.
The play called for Gregory to drop back into coverage, which he did before picking off the pass and taking it 33 yards for the score. But defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski missed the second half of the play call. He thought Gregory was supposed to be rushing and let the sophomore hear about it on the sideline.
"I only got the second half of the call," Kaczenski said. "I thought Randy had a missed assignment. I didn't know that we called the play where he dropped. I said, 'Good job, but you were supposed to be rushing.' He said, 'No, no, no coach! I was supposed to drop!' I said, 'I got the call mixed up, so you're good.'"
The reason Gregory was in such good position to pick the pass off was Nebraska ran that defensive play against that exact route during practice on Thursday. But that time, the ball bounced off of Gregory's hands, causing Pelini to joke that the Huskers should put 325-pound defensive tackle Vincent Valentine in Gregory's spot.
But Pelini was feeling much more confident about Gregory's abilities in the defensive meeting Saturday morning, predicting that the defensive end would score a touchdown in the game. Gregory made his coach look like Nostradamus.
"Bo called that in our defensive meeting," Kaczenski said with a smile. "That just shows you what type of athlete (Gregory) is."
- Dan Hoppen
Warm reception doesn't surprise Pelini
One of the biggest questions all week was how Nebraska fans would receive Pelini on Saturday after his disparaging remarks about the fan base from two years ago were leaked on Monday.
Those questions were quickly put to rest when Pelini for the most part was met with cheers and applause. For the sixth-year head coach, he said he expected nothing less.
"Obviously, I appreciate our fans," Pelini said. "I've said it and I'll say it again. We have great fans. I think everybody involved knows that what came out is not indicative of how I felt or how I feel about them. I think our fans understand that. They're great fans. They've been around me for five years. I think they know who I am as a person."
It wasn't an easy week for the rest of the coaching staff either.
"You put your heart and soul into something and you believe you're doing the right thing," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "In all areas of the program, it's about the kids first and foremost. I know we all want to win games and be undefeated and win national titles and that's our goal. But it's really about the kids and the rest of their lives and what they learn from you playing in your program.
"I've got a lot of respect for him doing that. A lot of guys don't do that. It's win or else. It's winning at all costs. I'm glad I'm here and I'm behind him 100 percent, as all of our guys are."
"You see how it affects everybody," Kaczenski added. "We coach a game, but this affected people's lives. It affected people's lives that you care about. It's just hard, man. This is a hard enough gig as it is. It's about the players, but as coaches, we're all we got, too. When you see people taking hits at you, it's tough."
Pelini made a point before the game to let the players know that this was just like any other contest. Receiver Quincy Enunwa said Bo told them to stay out of "that kind of stuff" and just play football. Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles added that the entire team supported their coach through the week's turmoil.
"One of the whole reasons I came here was because of Coach Bo," Sirles said. "He's like my father and I know he would do anything to help me become the best person and the best football player I can be. It wouldn't matter if the sky was falling. I think every player in that locker room has that guy's back. We all know he has ours no matter what."
- Robin Washut and Dan Hoppen