Big Ten: Tyler Legate

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Earlier this week, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini thought Saturday's Penn State game would -- and should -- be canceled.

Running back Ameer Abdullah's mother called him, worried about her son's safety when the team traveled to Beaver Stadium.

And the Cornhuskers were constantly reminded all week of the imbroglio they were about to enter every time they turned on the TV or radio or got on the Internet.

Nebraska got roped into the Penn State sex abuse scandal by mere association as the first team to play the Nittany Lions after the story exploded on the national scene. While the Huskers didn't have to deal with nearly as many distractions as Penn State's players did, this still wasn't a normal week for them by any means.

"You talk to them about it, but the fact is there were times it was hard as a coach," Pelini said. "Obviously, the coverage was all over the place; everywhere you turned, that's where the focus was."

But the Huskers managed to keep their focus on the game. There will be much written about how the Nittany Lions battled through their adversity to acquit themselves well in a strong performance. Don't forget the team that actually earned the 17-14 victory, one that showed plenty of grit on the road.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesRex Burkhead rushed for 121 yards and a score against the Nittany Lions.
"You could just feel it before the game," running back Rex Burkhead said. "There was something in the air that let you know you were in a different type of game. We did a terrific job of staying away from those distractions."

Penn State actually outgained the Cornhuskers 375-331 in total yards. Both teams had 21 first downs, and both lost fumbles near midfield to set up touchdowns for the other side. So it was a remarkably even game in many ways. Except when it mattered most.

The Nittany Lions had cut a 17-0 third-quarter deficit to only three points and faced fourth-and-1 at their 37 in the final two minutes. Naturally, they handed the ball to Silas Redd, who had been the Big Ten's best running back in a spectacular October. But Huskers linebacker Lavonte David met him just before the first-down line and pushed Redd backward, a classic mano-a-mano confrontation between two of the league's star players.

One more defensive stand was needed when Penn State got the ball back at its 28 with 49 seconds left. The Lions only got as far as their 46 before running out of time. Nebraska's defensive players were rewarded with their traditional Blackshirts after the Michigan State win but were left black-and-blue in an upset loss last week to Northwestern. They bounced back Saturday.

"We really had to man up," safety Austin Cassidy said. "We had to refocus because we gave up a lot of yards against Northwestern."

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck knew he had to loosen up a Nittany Lions defense that was allowing just 12.4 points per game this season. So he added a few wrinkles, most notably putting Burkhead under center and switching quarterback Taylor Martinez to Burkhead's I-back spot a few times. Burkhead was supposed to throw it twice, but the receivers were covered both times.

"Rex is a great thrower," Abdullah said. "He could play quarterback."

Beck is happy just to see Burkhead run the ball like he did Saturday. A week after a disappointing 69-yard day against Northwestern that had fans wondering if Burkhead was worn down, he ran for 121 yards and a touchdown against one of the nation's top defenses.

"He took it personally," Beck said. "He was very upset at himself after last week's game. I'm proud of him."

The new formations helped, but Nebraska really got going after a listless first quarter when it turned to the option game. Martinez continues to improve his decision-making on the option and made a perfect pitch to Burkhead just before getting dragged to the turf for what turned out to be the decisive touchdown.

"He made some good decisions today," Beck said. "There's some instinct involved in that, but a lot of it is just repetition. He's just got to keep practicing."

The Huskers are lucky that they can just focus on improving in the coming days. They know Penn State has a lot more difficult road ahead. Several of the players expressed empathy for the Lions, and they showed that empathy by joining Penn State in a moving pregame prayer at midfield before the game.

"That helped put everything at ease and let us just play the game," fullback Tyler Legate said. "I feel for those guys, and I hope they get over it."

The road win was big for the Huskers, who lost control of their fate in the Legends Division race with the Northwestern loss. They trail Michigan State by one game in the division and need the Spartans to lose at least once in the final two weeks to earn a trip to Indianapolis. That's assuming Nebraska wins out, and it faces another tall challenge on the road next week at Michigan.

"All we can do is worry about us," Cassidy said.

Or at least now they can.

Huskers winning with unexpected formula

September, 17, 2011

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska will officially introduce itself to Big Ten play in two weeks at Wisconsin. The league doesn't seem to be getting exactly what it bargained for in the deal.

The Cornhuskers were billed as a dominating defensive squad with a questionable offense. Hardly. They're winning via shootout, leading to this odd quote from linebacker Will Compton after Saturday's 51-38 victory over Washington:

"Thank God for our offense," he said.

The Huskies seem to bring out the schizophrenia in Nebraska, which played two mirror-image games against Washington last season. In taking the rubber match, Bo Pelini's team showed that it's not all about defense. In fact, sometimes that seems optional.

The Blackshirts ranked among the nation's best in most defensive categories the past two seasons, but they're not leaving too many people black and blue so far in 2011. They've allowed 67 points the past two games and let Washington score three fourth-quarter touchdowns on Saturday after the game looked well in hand.

Huskies players repeatedly broke tackles, and Keith Price became the second straight quarterback to bedevil the Nebraska pass rush with his mobility, as Fresno State's Derek Carr did last week. Though Pelini said he turned his defensive front loose after building a 44-17 lead, the Huskers managed only one second-half sack (granted, it was a big one, as Cameron Meredith tackled Price on a fourth down in the red zone).

"I wouldn't say it was tough for us to get pressure," defensive lineman Terrence Moore said. "We're keeping our eye out for a lot of things, like the quarterback run."

That raises an obvious question: if athletic quarterbacks pose this many problems, how will Nebraska handle Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in two weeks? The Huskers talked confidently in the preseason about roughing up the Big Ten with their defense, but they've gotten sliced and diced by two West Coast teams in the past two weeks. The defense will undoubtedly improve once star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard returns; he warmed up in uniform before the game and appears very close to overcoming a leg muscle injury.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesRex Burkhead scored two touchdowns and rushed for 120 yards on 22 carries as the offense carried Nebraska to victory.
Yet, as Huskers players gave interviews outside the new weight room Ndamukong Suh helped pay for, they knew guys like Suh wouldn't recognize what's going on.

"All those yards and points, that's unacceptable," Compton said. "We're not at all happy with that."

On the bright side, the offense continues to produce at high levels, and Saturday brought its most consistent effort of the young season.

In the first two weeks, Nebraska was as likely to go three-and-out as it was to score a 50-yard touchdown, and it did a lot of both. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total yards.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck used a more varied attack on Saturday, especially in the second half. Instead of just counting on Martinez to break one, the Huskers got key contributions from running backs Rex Burkhead (121 yards and two touchdowns), Braylon Heard (34 yards) and Aaron Green (36 yards in the fourth quarter). Green, a freshman listed fourth on the depth chart, had only two carries before Saturday.

"We're trying to take some of the load off Taylor," said fullback Tyler Legate, who had his own 37-yard run as well as a touchdown catch. "We have enough playmakers that he doesn't have to be the one."

The offensive line, which featured three former walk-ons in the starting lineup, helped establish a much-needed power running game in the second half. Beck said he kept calling the same run with Burkhead in the fourth quarter over and over again, because Washington couldn't stop it.

"I thought it was a good mix," Pelini said of the offense. "There was physicality. We ran the ball at them, we threw the ball, we kept them off-balance. If we execute like that, it's pretty hard to defend us."

Martinez continues to be hard to defend. He threw for 155 yards and ran for 83 against the Huskies, with three total touchdowns. Maybe most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. Beck said he puts a lot on Martinez's shoulders, expecting the sophomore to change the cadence and tempo and read defenses at the line of scrimmage without help from the sidelines.

"He's done a fantastic job running our offense," Beck said. "I just think the media's been critical of him."

The defense is probably in for much more critiquing this week, especially from the demanding Pelini. But Pelini had mostly praise for his team after Saturday's win.

"We're nowhere close in any respect, in any phase of our game, of where we need to be to be a championship football team," he said. "But I think we're making progress."

Just maybe not the type of progress anybody expected.

Nebraska in full control now

September, 17, 2011
LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's safe to say that Nebraska, holding a 44-17 lead in the fourth quarter, will win the rubber match in its third meeting with Washington in a year.

The Cornhuskers offense has been efficient in the second half, and a good sign for them is that it's not all just Taylor Martinez. Running backs Rex Burkhead, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard and even fullback Tyler Legate all have gotten in on the action as Nebraska has steadily moved the ball on the ground.

The defense is pitching a shutout in the second half, too. Washington had a promising drive end in the Huskers' red zone when Cameron Meredith sacked Keith Price on fourth down. Credit Nebraska's secondary with good coverage there, too, as Price couldn't find any openings after rolling out on the play.

It's been a very encouraging half for the Cornhuskers, and a very discouraging one for the mistake-prone Huskies. The final score will end up looking a lot like Nebraska's 56-21 win in Seattle last year instead of Washington's 19-7 Holiday Bowl revenge.