A determined defense helped Nebraska charge to its first Big 12 North title under Bo Pelini.
But any semblance of an offense could have catapulted the Cornhuskers to so much more.
The Cornhuskers came close in their 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game. In defeats to Texas, Iowa State and Virginia Tech, the Nebraska offense produced one touchdown and nine field goals.
Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh was the biggest force for the Blackshirts, who allowed only one opponent to score more than 21 points during the season. Nebraska ranked second nationally in scoring defense, third in pass efficiency defense and sacks and ninth in total defense. Considering the defense that Pelini inherited less than two years ago, it was a remarkable transformation.
The offense was a different story. Quarterback Zac Lee started strongly against a weak nonconference schedule and then struggled with the rest of the offense against early Big 12 opposition. After a one-game benching, he returned to direct an offense that was reined in for the rest of the season. It almost beat Texas in the Big 12 championship game, although a controversial finish denied the Cornhuskers their first Big 12 title since 1999.
Offensive MVP: I-back Roy Helu Jr.
The Cornhuskers got much of their gritty offensive identity from Helu, who started fast with two 100-yard games in his first three, including a 169-yard effort against Virginia Tech. After he was injured in the Missouri game, he struggled to return to form before charging for 138 yards against Oklahoma and 156 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas that helped Nebraska win the North.
Defensive MVP: DT Ndamukong Suh
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Suh the most dominant one-season player in Big 12 history. He led Nebraska with 82 tackles, including 23 stops for losses during the season. Suh had also produced team-leading totals of 12 sacks, 24 quarterback hurries and three blocked kicks and ranked second in passes broken up with 10. He became the first Big 12 defensive player in history to be invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Turning point: Nov. 7 vs. Oklahoma
The Cornhuskers desperately needed a win after struggling offensively against Baylor. Cody Green started the game and produced five consecutive three-and-outs. But Prince Amukamara’s interception return to the Oklahoma 1 set up the only touchdown after Zac Lee had been inserted in the lineup. That triumph was the biggest during a five-game winning streak that catapulted the Cornhuskers to the Big 12 North title.
A tough Holiday Bowl date against Arizona will provide Pelini a shot at his second consecutive bowl triumph. The Cornhuskers’ sputtering offense loses only one starter, but a quarterback challenge might be expected over the spring as Green becomes more comfortable in the offense. The defense will lose many of its most productive players (Suh, Barry Turner, safeties Matt O’Hanlon and Larry Asante and linebacker Phillip Dillard). But Jared Crick might be ready to emerge as Pelini’s next dominant defensive lineman.