- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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RexWatch 2012 gripped the state of Nebraska for more than a month, as all who love Big Red focused on one man's tender left knee.
TV stations led off their broadcasts with it. Pastors led off their sermons with the latest update. Forget the weather, the lottery numbers or the election results. The biggest story in the state was: When would Rex Burkhead be back?
OK, that's embellishing it a bit. But the anticipation to see No. 22 back on the field for Nebraska had grown with each passing week.
Here's the irony: When Burkhead finally returned to the field last Friday at Iowa, hardly anyone noticed.
"I had no clue until the second half when I saw him out there in the huddle," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "I was like, 'Dang, is he going in, or is he just out there supporting us?' And then I saw him running out there."
It took Huskers tight end Ben Cotton even longer to realize what had happened.
"I was on the outside of one of the plays and I was blocking," Cotton said, "and I look back and see our running back, and it was Rex, it wasn't Ameer [Abdullah], so I was a little bit surprised."
Out since Oct. 20 after aggravating his knee injury for the second time in as many games, Burkhead returned for the second half of Friday's win against Iowa. Nebraska trailed the Hawkeyes 7-3 at halftime and had nothing going on offense.
Burkhead provided 69 rush yards and the Huskers' only touchdown on 16 carries in the second half as Nebraska prevailed 13-7 to advance to Saturday night's Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin.
"Coach Bo [Pelini] came up to me after halftime, asking me if I was ready to play, and I said, 'Absolutely,'" Burkhead said. "It was just good to be out there, getting in the flow of the game, and having fun."
Other than the team's success, the season hasn't been much fun for Burkhead. He injured the knee in the season opener, missed two games, aggravated it Oct. 6 at Ohio State and again in the Northwestern game. After setting Nebraska's single-game carries record (38 last season against Iowa) and coming two carries short of the team's single-season mark (286 by Lawrence Phillips in 1994), Burkhead has appeared in just one full game -- coincidentally, against the Wisconsin team he'll face Saturday night in Indy.
Although Nebraska wanted Burkhead in the mix every time it took the field, the senior is back in the fold for the most important game of the season. And if Nebraska beats Wisconsin, Burkhead also will be there for the Rose Bowl matchup Jan. 1.
"It's a big boost for our team," Pelini said.
Nebraska had fared surprisingly well without Burkhead, as Abdullah stepped into a featured role and rushed for 1,071 yards and eight touchdowns, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches. Martinez became more active in the run game, especially in Big Ten play, and Braylon Heard (315 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Imani Cross (289 rush yards, 6 TDs) also chipped in.
The Huskers lead the Big Ten and rank eighth nationally in rushing offense (252.2 yards per game).
Still, adding a player of Burkhead's caliber at this point in the season could be the difference in winning a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl title.
"It's nice to be able to add that weapon back to our arsenal," Cotton said. "It'll make [offensive coordinator Tim Beck] feel a little bit better, too. When you've got a backfield of those caliber of players, it's going to be a lot easier for him to make play calls."
Even in one half of action at Iowa, Burkhead showed Nebraska what it had been missing. After scoring just three points in four possessions, the Huskers scored on two of their first three drives with Burkhead in the game.
On a miserable day where field position proved crucial, Iowa pinned Nebraska at its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Facing second-and-9 from the 2, the Huskers turned to Burkhead, who carried defenders eight yards for a first down. He then gained nine yards to ensure the Huskers wouldn't have to punt from their own end zone.
"In the fourth quarter, I was sitting there, trying to stay warm, you look up and we’re getting big runs, fighting for extra yards, second efforts, third efforts out of Rex," linebacker Will Compton said. "I was just smiling and happy to have him back.
"That's the Rex we know."
It's the Rex they've missed. Burkhead helped Nebraska run out the clock with a 15-yard run, followed by a third-and-3 conversion.
"He ran hard, he ran with passion, he did some really good things, made some really tough yards," Pelini said.
Burkhead had targeted the Big Ten title game for his return, but circumstances forced it to happen earlier. He had no soreness following the Iowa game and should be fresh Saturday night.
"Whatever way I can contribute, I'm happy to do that," he said. "It's been a learning experience these past weeks, and it's just great to be back with the team and be out there on the field having the opportunity to make plays."