NCF Nation: Tim Beck

They’ll line up on opposite sides this week in Nebraska, fans and media and anyone with an opinion -- with seventh-year Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini in the middle -- and trade angry shots.

The argument is futile and redundant, and it nearly ripped this football program in half a year ago. Yet for the fourth straight season, it’s unfolding, with a little more exasperation and resentment each November or December.

Remember those good vibes in the offseason as Pelini showed his playful side? Turns out, it was never more than a distraction. The seemingly timeless debate is back: Support Pelini for his consistent winning ways and unwavering loyalty or skewer him for the Huskers’ repeated flops on the big stage.

The latest, a 59-24 defeat Saturday at Wisconsin in which Melvin Gordon rushed for an FBS-record 408 yards and the Badgers outgained Nebraska 627 yards to 180, destroyed momentum from the Huskers’ eight wins in nine games to open this season.

Since Pelini arrived in 2008, Nebraska has lost 10 games by 20 points or more. It has allowed 45 points or more six times since the 2011 move to the Big Ten. Wisconsin has twice set the all-time rushing record by a Nebraska opponent and won three of four games against the Huskers by an average of 35 points.

Next will come the calls for Pelini to revamp his coaching staff. Major change is unlikely. Pelini showed last year he would rather be fired than disassemble the group around him.

As the drama progresses, inevitably, a big-name coach or commentator will issue this advice to the Pelini detractors:

Be careful for what you wish. Dozens of programs with more natural advantages than Nebraska would gladly trade spots with the Huskers, who need one victory to reach the nine-win plateau for the seventh time in seven seasons under Pelini. Don’t take for granted such success, says the narrative, and, oh, stop living in the 1990s. Your days of dominating college football are gone and never coming back.

Such an argument is comically out of touch with reality at Nebraska, where repeated embarrassments in meaningful moments are threatening to steal the soul from a proud program and its passionate fans.

Media in attendance for the Saturday debacle in Madison offered strong words, all of them justified. Wrote Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel of Pelini:
    Yes, he’s won a bunch of games. But Pelini’s era is defined by victories you don’t remember and losses that you do.

From Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star:
    The latest embarrassment is frankly inexplicable for a program with Nebraska's wide array of resources and energy poured into the program.

And the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain on the post-Wisconsin comment of defensive coordinator John Papuchis that the next game, Saturday in Lincoln against Minnesota, would reveal much about the Huskers:
    No. No. A thousand times no. ... These are the games that MATTER. These are the days that define a coach and his program.

Nebraska football is officially in a dangerous place. Its reputation nationally has absorbed hit after hit, dipping after Saturday perhaps to its lowest point of Pelini’s time at the school.

Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a protégé of Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, no doubt felt uncomfortable in the return to his old home.

But the second-year boss in Lincoln stays notably quiet, especially in these times.

A year ago, Nebraska struggled to the finish, losing by three touchdowns to Iowa in a regular-season finale overshadowed by speculation about the coach’s job security. Eichorst said nothing in public until the morning after that game. Most observers interpreted his silence to mean Pelini was in trouble.

The coach appeared to believe it, too -- or maybe he was just sick of the scrutiny. Regardless, it's coming back.

And it's more clear than ever that leaders at Nebraska face a decision. Maintain the stability in place or risk change to make a run at the top in the College Football Playoff era?

The choice is up to Pelini, unless Eichorst makes it for him.

The 46-year-old coach, resolute as ever, said on Saturday that he would not engage in “big picture” conversation.

Nebraska is inching closer to that tipping point, where the school and the fans, who ultimately pay Pelini’s salary, demand some attention paid to the big picture over the comfort of another nine-win season.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- If Ameer Abdullah was talking this week and he was honest, he’d tell you how much Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium means to him.

He’d tell you about how in his senior season, as seemingly no one nationally wants to credit Nebraska for its 8-1 record, that the Huskers’ predicament bears more than a slight resemblance to Abdullah’s career track. And how he’d like nothing more this week at Wisconsin than to prove a few folks wrong.

After all, that’s kind of his thing.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Nati Harnik/AP PhotoAmeer Abdullah deserves to be healthy for his long-anticipated duel with Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin.
He’d tell you about the importance, personally, of this moment, matched against the Badgers’ star running back, Melvin Gordon, a friend and competitor since they met at an all-star game after their senior seasons of high school.

“I believe you’ve got the two best in the country right here, coming at you,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.

Abdullah and Gordon have together rushed for 72 touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards in their careers. But in three Nebraska-Wisconsin games since their freshman years, they’ve never met as the featured backs.

This week, since the last game in this series went so poorly for Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship game, was one for which Abdullah long waited -- as an individual and for his team.

All of it underscores the sadness of the situation if Abdullah is unable to play at his best against the Badgers. After topping 200 yards in four of Nebraska’s first eight games and thrusting himself into the Heisman Trophy race as he closed on Mike Rozier’s career rushing record at Nebraska, Abdullah got hurt early in Nebraska’s win over Purdue while diving for the goal line after he recovered a fumbled snap.

He has not missed a game in four seasons at Nebraska. But last week, as the Huskers had a bye, Abdullah did not practice, focusing instead on rehab for his left knee, which suffered a slight tear of the MCL.

“I think he’s probably worked in the last week and a half as hard as I’ve seen him in a long time,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said on Tuesday after Abdullah participated in his first practice since the injury occurred. “He’s very determined to do everything he can to be 100 percent for the game.”

Beck said Abdullah on Tuesday accomplished everything the Huskers asked of him.

This guy has made a career, though, of doing everything asked of him and a lot more.

Such as when he took the team on his back in September against Miami, running 35 times for 229 yards, a “man possessed,” according to coach Bo Pelini, in the Huskers’ 41-31 win. Or two weeks earlier, when he dashed 55 yards of the 58-yard TD catch in the final seconds, shedding several tackles to unlock a tie against upstart McNeese State.

Abdullah has declined interview requests since he got hurt. Pelini talked in optimistic tones last week but dialed it back on Monday and Tuesday, saying he’s “not a doctor” and that he doesn’t own a crystal ball to foretell Abdullah’s status on Saturday.

MCL injuries are tricky. To be clear, it’s a partial tear -- by definition, that’s a sprain -- so it could get worse if he moves the wrong way on that leg.

Abdullah’s predecessor as the star I-back at Nebraska, Rex Burkhead, fought an MCL sprain for much of his senior year in 2012. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a similar injury last month against Penn State and hardly missed a step in continuing to direct the Buckeyes.

“I know he’s going to be 100 percent,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said

Nebraska players and coaches sound sincere in expressing confidence that their captain will be ready. But how much of that is grounded in Abdullah’s seemingly superhuman characteristics?

“He want us to put our best foot forward,” Beck said, “and he’s obviously part of that best foot, so he’s doing everything he can to get himself physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically ready to go out there and compete as hard as he can for as long as he can -- whatever that is.

“That’s what I think is going through his mind.”

Even Andersen, the second-year Wisconsin coach, can’t help but pull for Abdullah.

“He deserves the opportunity to go through his year and be at the top of his game,” Andersen said. “You’d hope that kid, with the class act he is and the way he represents the Big Ten ... I would truly hope he’s 100 percent.”

Offensively, without Abdullah, Nebraska just isn’t the same. It needs him on Saturday. And if he returns to play at a level high enough to stage the long-awaited duel with Gordon, it might rank as Abdullah’s most impressive feat yet.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The most important days of the football season have arrived at Nebraska -- as in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and into next week.

The 15th-ranked Huskers, after a bye, visit fellow Big Ten West contender Wisconsin on Nov. 15. It shapes up as a huge game in Nebraska's bid to play for a conference title next month in Indianapolis, the only satisfactory outcome to this promising season.

But before Nebraska gets to Wisconsin, it must clear a hurdle perhaps more daunting, a challenge outside of its control.

It must hope for the return to good health of I-back Ameer Abdullah.

Because without Abdullah at full strength or close to it, Nebraska will not win the West Division.

Yes, the defense in Lincoln is improved and playing well, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has it in him to perform at a high level against the Badgers, Minnesota and Iowa.

But this season for the Huskers, realistically, rests on the sore left knee of Abdullah, the best offensive player in seven years under coach Bo Pelini at Nebraska and a Heisman Trophy contender when running on two good wheels. The Huskers have invested wholly in the senior, and he has delivered to the tune of 1,250 rushing yards, impacting teammates in a way that transcends his impressive statistics.

Abdullah went down in the first quarter of Nebraska's 35-14 win against Purdue on Saturday. A mild sprain of the MCL is the diagnosis. Offensively, the Huskers struggled without him, totaling a season-low 297 yards with an average of 4.1 per play.

"It's not why we didn't play well on offense," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said of Abdullah's absence.

Beck, a few breaths later, though, said the Huskers "have to be perfect" without their star player on the field.

Really, perfect, against Purdue?

That doesn't bode well against Wisconsin, which allows 253.8 yards at 14.1 points per game, both low figures nationally.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Nati Harnik/AP PhotoThe 8-1 Cornhuskers are hoping Ameer Abdullah, their star I-back, rehabs his knee in time to return to Nebraska's starting lineup.
Even with Abdullah, Nebraska may perform in Madison like it did at Michigan State, rushing for 47 yards on 1.3 per carry in a 27-22 defeat.

Defensively, Purdue ranked in the bottom third of the Big Ten across the board. Nebraska's fourth-quarter possessions, when it needed one touchdown to essentially ice the victory, ended with three punts and a turnover before the Huskers scored on a 7-yard drive with two minutes to play.

Their final first down of the game for Nebraska came on a 1-yard run by Imani Cross that preceded a touchdown with 4:52 to left in the third quarter.

But Abdullah's absence did not inhibit his teammates, Pelini said.

"I mean, if it did, then we're not mentally tough enough to get done what we need to get done," Pelini said. "Heck, Ameer's a great player, but he's not Superman. I don't think it affected our other guys. If anything, it should make them want to rise up and play that much harder and rally around each other."

Abdullah moves the chains when Nebraska needs a first down. He captures more than his share of attention from the defense, allowing Armstrong the comfort to operate.

"The way we played," Armstrong said of Saturday, "we should have lost. I know we won, but I feel like I failed."

It's no coincidence that the quarterback's two worst days of the season came on Saturday (20.2 QBR) and against Michigan State (43.4 QBR). In the four games this season that Abdullah topped 200 rushing yards, Armstrong was 48 of 85 passing with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

"If we turn the ball over like we did [against Purdue]," Armstrong said, "and make mistakes like we did, we are going to lose."

Nebraska has been down this road often, actually.

It happened last season with Taylor Martinez, as Beck engineered a system to capitalize on his strengths before the quarterback suffered a debilitating foot injury early in the season.

Two years ago, I-back Rex Burkhead was limited to seven starts because of a knee injury much like Abdullah's ailment. The Huskers suffered offensively without their leader.

Pelini said he was optimistic on Saturday night about Abdullah. Hard to say, though, what that means. The coach will address it again on Tuesday. Don't expect anything definitive. It's too early, anyway.

As the days tick toward Nov. 15, a chance exists for Abdullah to add an incredible finish to his record-setting career. He's the first player at Nebraska to rush for 1,000 yards or more in each season for three years.

The obstacle ahead of him -- to regain his agility in less than two weeks -- may be greater.

The Huskers are counting on him. He is still their best hope to make this season different from the recent norm at Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Midway through the fourth quarter of Nebraska’s victory over Rutgers on Saturday, Ameer Abdullah appeared on the HuskerVision screens inside Memorial Stadium. As his school record of 341 all-purpose yards was announced to the crowd, the senior I-back stood steely-faced, staring ahead, seemingly oblivious to the moment.

Earlier, in the midst of his 225-yard rushing effort, Abdullah, while waiting for his next opportunity, clutched a football on the sideline. Teammates mingled or sat on the bench, but Abdullah just held that ball in a locked position near his chest and kept his body in motion, a drill -- designed for practice -- that running backs coach Ron Brown encourages.

Eight games into his final season at Nebraska, Abdullah leads the nation in rushing yardage. He’s second in touchdowns. With four 200-yard rushing performances, he’s on track to top 2,000 yards in the 13th game of the season, whether that’s in Indianapolis Dec. 6 or at a bowl site.

He just passed Anthony Thompson and Archie Griffin to take the No. 2 spot on the Big Ten’s career all-purpose yardage list. With a couple more games like Saturday, in which he returned a kickoff 76 yards and caught two passes, Abdullah will pass Ron Dayne, who totaled 7,429 all-purpose yards, as the league’s all-time leader.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is putting up a historically good season -- and career.
You’d think, perhaps, the guy would take a moment to appreciate his accomplishments.

Not a chance.

“He’ll be able to look back on this with a lot of pride,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It’s pretty special.”

Abdullah said he needs to keep his head down. Literally.

“You can’t get caught up in that right now,” he said, “because that’s not what is important. What’s important is tomorrow.”

Brown compared the past three months for Abdullah to a walk through the jungle. The deeper into the season he gets, the thicker the brush and the more difficult it becomes for him to see if, for even a minute, he loses focus.

“He’s just pulling things out of the way to get to the destination,” Brown said. “He realizes this is part of the jungle. He’s trying to keep his eyes on the prize.

“If you lose your senses, you can get discombobulated and go find a place to melt down somewhere.”

Last month, as Nebraska ramped up its promotion of Abdullah for the Heisman Trophy and other awards, the Alabama native largely shut down his availability to the media.

If an activity is not sharpening his focus, Abdullah prioritizes other things.

“He doesn’t have to think about that stuff,” Brown said.

Abdullah granted an extended interview Saturday, continuing to deflect attention even as he fielded questions about his own record-setting performance.

He sits 555 yards from breaking Nebraska's career rushing mark of 4,780 yards, set in three seasons by Heisman winner Mike Rozier. That record has long been considered unattainable at the school known for its legacy of I-backs.

Despite the appearance, Abdullah said he recognizes the significance of his achievements this fall.

“They're definitely memories,” he said. “Every time I step on the field, whether it's practice or a game, I'm always creating memories here. I'm always going to remember coming here and playing for this great university. Not many people are blessed with that opportunity. Definitely, it’s an honor."

His array of spectacular runs, in a way, creates a difficult situation for Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

For instance, on Saturday, Abdullah scored on consecutive touches of 53 and 48 yards as he buckled the knees of Rutgers defenders on both plays. The back-to-back drives unlocked a 7-7 tie early in the second quarter and had the stadium abuzz about Abdullah’s next chance.

But on the ensuing possession, Beck called three pass plays. The first two fell incomplete. Rutgers cornerback Anthony Cioffi intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. on the third.

Collectively, more than 90,000 people in attendance groaned. Why didn't Beck call the number of his best player?

“You can’t always just hand the ball to Ameer,” Beck said. “Everyone is going to know. You can’t just do that.”

Oh, the problems of coaching a Heisman candidate.

“Coach Beck understands getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands and spacing is really important,” Abdullah said. “We have to utilize all of our skilled players. We don’t want to just make this offense one-dimensional.”

Through it all, Abdullah keeps his head down, navigating the jungle. As for any discussion about his place among other great running backs -- this season or historically -- Pelini said Abdullah belongs in the discussion.

“I mean, just watch the film,” the coach said. “That’s all you’ve got to do.”
LINCOLN, Neb. – It was going to overtime: Nebraska and McNeese State.

The Cowboys owned the second half on Saturday. And when the 19th-ranked Huskers took possession with 1:14 to play at their 44-yard line, tied 24-24, and blitzing safety Dominique Hill sacked Tommy Armstrong Jr. to force a fumble that bounced to right guard Mike Moudy, Nebraska just needed to survive and regroup.

Time ticked away. Inside of 40 seconds, Armstrong lined up in the shotgun with Ameer Abdullah to his right. The sophomore quarterback, amid the chaos, yelled to the star I-back and team captain.

"Be ready," he said. "Expect the ball."

And then this happened:

video

Armstrong recognized a blanket of zone coverage on the outside. He kept his eyes forward. But in his mind, the QB locked in early on Abdullah -- the fourth option on this play -- and found the senior in the flat matched against 218-pound middle linebacker Bo Brown.

“Adrenaline takes over in those heated moments,” said Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher from 2013.

The ball traveled 12 yards in the air and reached Abdullah at the Nebraska 44. He shook Brown as Hill collided with the linebacker.

“I was just trying to get to the end zone,” Abdullah said. “It’s a blur.”

Cornerback Gabe Hamner and defensive tackle Kevin Dorn converged on Abdullah. They lunged at him as safety Aaron Sam hit the running back squarely from the front at midfield. Abdullah bounced away from all three and sprang into open space.

“I saw a special player making a great play,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

Safety Brent Spikes had a shot near the McNeese 45, but Abdullah accelerated past him just as tight end Cethan Carter laid out Wallace Scott with a block to the linebacker’s right shoulder.

“I was just trying not to get in his way,” said left guard Jake Cotton, one of several linemen to get downfield as Abdullah navigated traffic.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he figured if Abdullah got the ball in space, he could make a few guys miss.

"He made a few guys miss," Beck said.

Cornerback Jermaine Antoine had the final shot at Abdullah, but Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp deterred him near the 25.

"He’s our leader," Westerkamp said. "He brings it all the time. It’s great to have a guy with that attitude."

Abdullah reached the end zone with 20 seconds on the clock and secured a 31-24 win -- after 58 yards and 16 seconds of excitement.

"He put the team on his back and won the game," Pelini said. "Thank God for Ameer. He showed why he is who he is."
LINCOLN, Neb. -- If Shawn Eichorst, the first-year athletic director at Nebraska, peers out a window from the third floor that houses his office on the towering north end of Memorial Stadium, he can almost see a figurative line drawn in the sand.

On one side stands the pro-Bo Pelini crowd.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWhat's in store for Bo Pelini's future at Nebraska? We'll find out soon enough.
Its members point to the sixth-year coach’s clean football program, the undeniable fight and pride and resolve present in these Huskers -- on display again Saturday as Nebraska, with its No. 3 quarterback and an offensive line decimated by injuries, beat Penn State on the road in the cold and snow of overtime.

They speak of Pelini’s improving defense, his 56 wins since 2008, the most of any coach hired that season, his excellent record in close games and how only Nebraska, Alabama, Oregon and Boise State have won nine games in each of the past five years.

The Huskers, at 8-3, can reach the mark again on Friday with a win at home over Iowa (noon ET, ABC).

On the other side lurks the anti-Bo crowd. It references the occasional blowout loss, the lack of a conference championship or BCS bowl game under Pelini, the recurring problems with turnovers and special teams and untimely penalties.

It talks of the four losses every season, recruiting missteps, a vanishing act from the national landscape and signs of general stagnation.

As the countdown reaches four days to the regular-season finale, the Pelini debate has grown red hot around Nebraska.

Factions on each side think the other is out of touch and unrealistic.

With every dramatic victory or heart-stabbing defeat, public opinion appears to sway. Really, though, the week-to-week events simply offer a revolving stage for each group to scream from the flatlands to the sandhills of this state. And loudly.

Yes, a figurative line has been drawn in the sand. It’s divisive and damaging, potentially long term, for a program whose foundation was built upon unwavering support.

Eloquent receiver Kenny Bell, who returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State, spoke passionately in defense of his coaches last week. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck, by all accounts, grew emotional on Saturday when asked the criticism.

Among some in the media, the tone has turned angry.

Eichorst sees what is happening before him. That much we know.

Nearly all else about the law-school-trained administrator, including his stance on Pelini, remains a mystery.

Eichorst came to Nebraska from Miami last year. He wants to stay out of sight and out of mind during the season. An email request for his comment on Monday was returned with a polite acknowledgement but no hint of his plans to talk on the topic.

Meanwhile, Pelini addressed the team last Thursday as rumors circulated about his job status, assuring Nebraska players that he would not quit on them.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” the coach said on Monday.

After the victory at Penn State, veteran running backs coach Ron Brown told the Omaha World-Herald, perhaps directed at the administration, that he sensed common traits between this team and the Huskers’ 1992 and 1993 squads that set the stage for three national titles.

Nebraska recruit Peyton Newell shared on Twitter last week a private message from defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, encouraging Newell to “look past the noise.”

“I can tell you this bro, if I’m ever going into a fight,” Kaczenski wrote, “and I could pick one person to stand by my side -- I’m picking coach Bo.”

Pelini on Monday said he’s not discussed anything with Eichorst about the end of this season.

“I’m not coaching to save my job or anything like that,” Pelini said. “At the end of the day, I want to be here. And I want to be here if [the administration wants] me here. If somebody doesn’t want me here -- and I’m not saying Shawn doesn’t -- if they don’t want me, then I’ll move on. I’ll go on my way.

He said he likes the direction of the Nebraska program.

"I like where we are," Pelini said. "I think the future is bright. I really do."

This fan meter on Pelini, if my gauge is accurate, is close to 50-50, minus the small cluster swayed week to week by the loud arguments of the group on stage. This week, the pro-Bo crowd is making noise.

Eichorst’s silence has placed him at the center of the storm. His invisibility causes more harm than good. It’s time to talk, unless, of course, he’s planning a change, because what does he have to say in that case before this weekend?

My hunch: Eichorst, in his first year, doesn’t want the blood on his hands that this kind of controversial firing would create. And the Huskers’ unwavering spirit must count for something.

Pelini may, in fact, be out, but only if Eichorst decided in September he couldn’t work with a coach who made the comments revealed on two-year-old audio tape in which Pelini was critical of the fans and suggested he was ready to leave Nebraska.

Outwardly, Eichorst appears the sophisticated type, riding shotgun with Chancellor Harvey Perlman -- whose own lawyer persona is at odds with the often-gruff Pelini. Will it matter?

Four days and counting to the end of this debate. For the sake of this program’s stability, it can’t get here soon enough.

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
11:30
AM ET
Bo Pelini sees football as a series of basic decisions. Black and white. No room for gray area. He says it often.

To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?

Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.

Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesIn his comeback from a foot injury at Minnesota, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez had a rough game.
Nebraska made no move to capable backups Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III. For three games this season as Martinez was sidelined by injuries, Armstrong and Kellogg helped the Huskers win.

When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.

Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.

Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?

The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."

"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."

He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.

But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.

His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.

It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.

But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.

It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.

It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.

He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.

Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.

A score of 50 is average.

Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.

The least of Nebraska's problems?

That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.

And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.

Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.

Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.

Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.

Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.

Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.

And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.

Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.

For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Somebody’s going to bring it up if for no reason other than because Nebraska is entering a bye week and the defense is a depressing topic and he throws such a pretty ball.

Why not go with Tommy Armstrong?

The redshirt freshman quarterback looked spectacular in his starting debut, a 59-20 Husker victory over South Dakota State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium -- in his own way just as good as another redshirt freshman who got everyone so excited three years ago this month.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRedshirt freshman signal-caller Tommy Armstrong was nearly flawless in the Cornhuskers' win over South Dakota State.
Armstrong commanded the offense with precision in place of injured senior Taylor Martinez.

He led five drives. Four went for touchdowns. The other ended when Kenny Bell fumbled after a catch and run to the SDSU 10-yard line. Armstrong finished 12-of-15 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown. He rushed five times for 38 yards. He didn’t commit a turnover.

“It’s what we’ve been saying, since he’s been here,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He’s just a gamer. That’s what he is. He thrives in situations like this and played extremely well.”

Freshmen quarterbacks create a sparkle in the eye of every fan. They offer a promise of something better.

Stop right there, though. This is Martinez’s team. Sure, he has looked out of sync this year, especially last week in a 41-21 loss to UCLA. He has yet to prove he can lead Nebraska to a championship.

But before the subject gains steam and the crowd here grows restless when the offense sputters behind Martinez for a couple series in Big Ten play, remember this: Armstrong will have his day. Soon, too. It’s just not now, as long as Martinez is healthy.

Martinez started 32 straight games before Saturday and 43 in his career, more than any Nebraska quarterback.

He’s not Wally Pipp.

And Armstrong is not the answer. Not yet, anyway.

That said, wow, the kid looked good. Armstrong faced just four third downs on his five possessions. The Huskers converted all of them, two on Armstrong completions to go-to receiver Quincy Enunwa and two on runs by Imani Cross.

Armstrong played with a swagger. Coach Bo Pelini mentioned it after the game. Armstrong set the tempo. He got the Huskers off fast, a problem before Saturday. Nebraska ate chunks of yardage on its first possession, covering 24 yards, 13, 28 and 5 for the touchdown.

“It took us back to summer,” Armstrong said. “When our number is called, we have to set the tone. That’s one thing we did, we set the tone for the defense.”

Armstrong said he couldn’t sleep on Friday night.

The quarterback envisioned this moment since he arrived last year from Texas, where he directed Cibolo Steele to a pair of 5A title-game appearances. Armstrong learned how to lead from running back Malcolm Brown and defensive tackle Marquis Anderson, who left Steele before Armstrong for Texas and Oklahoma, respectively.

So when the moment arrived this week, he embraced it.

And when South Dakota State answered his opening pair of touchdown drives with scores of its own and Armstrong turned the offense to Ron Kellogg III, only to watch the Huskers lose a fumble and FCS-level Jackrabbits go ahead, the young QB gathered teammates on the sideline.

“I told them, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re going to go down and score and get a stop,' " he said “That’s pretty much the mindset.”

It happened. He returned after Kellogg directed a TD march and led an 11-play, 80-yard drive, hitting Sam Burtch for 16 yards in the end zone.

On the touchdown, Cethan Carter flashed wide open before Armstrong hesitated a bit and found Burtch near the corner.

South Dakota State was slow to react. A better defense might have made Armstrong pay. That’s about the only critique of him from this game. And it’s a stretch.

Armstrong showed no sign of losing his rhythm by sitting out after his first two drives, then for two more after his third possession -- a difficult ask of any quarterback, let alone a freshman in his first start.

“He handled it like a pro,” Kellogg said.

Pelini said he learned nothing about Armstrong that he didn’t already know. And Pelini doesn’t care if the performance came against South Dakota State or Michigan State.

“I look at the execution,” said Pelini, whose team opens league play in two weeks against Illinois. “It doesn’t matter who you’re executing against.”

Armstrong learned he would start from Beck after Pelini told the media on Tuesday that it appeared likely. At the end of a difficult week for the program following the loss to UCLA and a storm of controversy around the coach, a big ovation greeted Armstrong as he took the field.

Of course. He’s the freshman, the fresh face. But don’t go there. It’s not time.

Here’s what we learned: Armstrong, after Saturday, owns the edge next spring over Johnny Stanton, who’s redshirting this fall, when Martinez and Kellogg are gone.

For some, considering the apparent stalled progress of this program, the future can’t get here fast enough.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- He may be in the minority when it comes to this opinion, but Nebraska's Taylor Martinez sees himself as a future NFL quarterback.

Martinez doesn't even entertain thoughts about switching to another position like safety at the next level. His every intention is to stay at quarterback. He says he admires Seattle's Russell Wilson, another former Big Ten signal-caller that some people thought was too small to make it in the pros.

Of course, Martinez hasn't displayed the same kind of accuracy as Wilson. But for the second straight year, he's making a 70 percent completion rate his goal for the season, after connecting on a career-best 62 percent of his throws in 2012.

"I believe in setting your goals high," he told ESPN.com. "Because even if you fall a little short, you'll still be in good shape."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Mike Carter/US PresswireNebraska coach Bo Pelini had high praise for Taylor Martinez, calling the QB's decision-making "phenomenal" this spring.
It would be one thing if Martinez just talked about his lofty ambitions. But give the Cornhuskers senior credit for this: he has worked hard to make himself the best possible player he can be.

For the second year in a row, Martinez spent his spring break working with noted California quarterback guru Steve Calhoun. He threw passes to former USC receiver Robert Woods, current St. Louis Rams wideouts Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis and the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Jones. He compared notes with USC quarterback Cody Kessler and Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo. Martinez showed markedly better mechanics and footwork last year after working with Calhoun and wants to continue to polish the finer points of his game.

He led the Big Ten in total offense last year, rushing for 1,019 yards and throwing for 2,871. As a four-year starter, he's poised to finish his career with some awfully big numbers. Consider:

  • He already holds the Nebraska career record for passing yards and needs just 576 rushing yards to pass Eric Crouch as the school's top rushing quarterback.
  • He could finish his career with 9,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, joining Nevada's Colin Kaepernick as the only FBS players to accomplish that feat.
  • Martinez is the leading active career rusher in the FBS, with 2,858 yards.

Yet he still has his flaws, as anyone with a casual knowledge of Huskers football could tell you. Martinez still turns the ball over too much, both because of forced throws and fumbles. Most of that results from him trying to do too much.

"The kid wants to throw a touchdown pass or score on every play, but that isn't how you win football games," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's a prideful guy and extremely competitive. But you've got to draw back on that and say, 'OK, it's not just what I can do athletically. It's about being a great quarterback.'"

Pelini has talked to Martinez about being a better game manager and not trying to play the hero so much. He has noticed a difference in his quarterback in that area this spring.

"He has been accurate and his decision-making has been phenomenal," Pelini said. "He is really recognizing defenses well and getting us in and out of the right plays. If he can manage games the way he is right now and stay on the path he's on, the sky's the limit. I can see him taking another step, and that could be scary for our opponents."

Martinez is easily the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten, with 39 career starts under his belt. He is entering his third season under offensive coordinator Tim Beck, so he knows the system in and out. Beck said he doesn't have to worry about making the perfect call anymore, because Martinez knows enough to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage if necessary.

"I can change a play any time depending on what I see," Martinez said. "You might see a little more audibling from me this year."

Teammates have noticed a difference, too.

"His confidence and his leadership have just skyrocketed," receiver Jamal Turner said. "You can tell how comfortable he is with the offense, just calling plays and checking plays. Before, he would kind of have to look to the sideline. Now, he has it all down."

Martinez still has a lot to prove in his final year at Nebraska. He must show that he can play under control and avoid key turnovers. He has to help deliver a championship to the Huskers, or he'll never quite be beloved by the Big Red faithful. He'll face an uphill climb in convincing NFL general managers that he can play quarterback as a pro.

If he fails at any of those things, it won't be because he didn't aim high enough.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck oversaw one of the most prolific attacks in the Big Ten in 2012. Now, Beck is getting rewarded for that good work.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the third-year coordinator had his salary nearly doubled on Jan. 1, going from $365,000 last season to $700,000 this year. That would make Beck the third-highest paid coordinator in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($761,000) and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($750,000). Beck would be making more than Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. (We took a look at the highest-paid Big Ten assistants last month, which you can find here).

According to the story, head coach Bo Pelini said Beck had been contacted by at least two teams for jobs after the regular season.

Some other Huskers assistants also got raises. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis went from $300,000 to $310,000. Assistant offensive line coach John Garrison got the biggest bump, going from $160,000 to $245,000. Running backs coach Ron Brown and offensive line coach Barney Cotton saw their salaries jump from $240,000 to $254,800. Overall, the Huskers are adding more than $500,000 to their assistant coaching salary pool this year.

We've talked here recently about how Big Ten teams need to continue to pay their assistants well if they want to compete with other national powers. It's good to see Nebraska step up and reward Beck, who has done a great job so far in Lincoln.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
9:00
AM ET
Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
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."

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRex Burkhead (22) provided a spark to the Nebraska offense in his return, gaining 4.3 yards per carry and scoring a TD against Iowa.
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."

Huskers WRs are 'perimeter warriors'

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
11:00
AM ET
Whenever wide receiver recruits visit Nebraska, Kenny Bell doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth.

"I tell them, 'If you want to jog around and only work when routes are being run, then don't come here,'" Bell told ESPN.com. "'We only care about winning football games, and the best way to do that is by having a strong running game.'"

Nebraska might be the school of Johnny Rodgers and Irving Fryar, but for decades the first job of any Cornhuskers wide receiver has been to block. It's no coincidence that the team's current wide receiver coach, Rich Fisher, was a former star linebacker at Colorado. In the receivers' meeting room, Bell said, the stats that are featured on the walls relay which player has the most successful blocks and the most knockdowns.

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQuincy Enunwa and the Nebraska receivers take as much pride in their physicality as they do in their playmaking.
"We don't care about yards after catch or receiving yards or receiving touchdowns," Bell said. "That's definitely at the bottom of our priority list. Coach Fisher always talks about being perimeter warriors, about wreaking havoc out there."

The receiving corps' ability to clear traffic on the outside is an underrated reason why Nebraska leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's best in rushing yards, at 269.3 per game. When Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah turns the corner, they often have an open lane.

That's nothing new for the Huskers. What's different this year is that those receivers aren't just good blockers. They're also highly productive in the passing game.

Bell leads the way with 35 catches for 653 yards, which already ranks as the ninth-most receiving yards in team history. Quincy Enunwa, known as the most physical of the wideouts, has had some big moments himself, including a 110-yard game at Northwestern. Jamal Turner has come on of late, catching the game-winning touchdown at Michigan State and adding another score last week against Penn State. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed have added playmaking ability at tight end; Reed hauled in a crucial 56-yard third-down catch late in last week's win.

"Every one of the skill players at Nebraska can take it the distance when they touch the football," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty scary."

Last season, the Huskers' passing game was inconsistent as the receivers struggled with drops and Martinez reverted to some bad habits. Both Martinez and his wideouts have made great strides this season, turning Nebraska's offense into a truly balanced attack.

"They've given us a lot of big plays," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think they've steadily improved as the season has gone on. … We play a lot of guys at the receiver position, and they've responded well and I think they complement each other."

Playing receiver in Lincoln is not easy. You have to be in good enough shape to line up repeatedly in the Huskers' hurry-up style, and strong enough to battle cornerbacks and safeties at the line of scrimmage. Enunwa, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, relishes the challenge.

"When you're a big guy and you see those DBs who are much smaller, you have to take advantage of that," he said. "Then we get into the passing game, they're already worn out and we're running past them and getting touchdowns, so it just helps so much."

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he asks a lot of his wideouts, and several plays demand that a single receiver blocks two defenders. Bell took that to an extreme in the Michigan State game, disrupting four different Michigan State defenders to help spring a 71-yard touchdown run by Martinez.

"I knew I was going to get at least two, and I just got lucky with the other two guys who were flowing to the play," Bell says. "There wasn't too much praise that went around. I did my job. That's how we're coached."

It takes some coaching to get receivers prepared for Nebraska's style, as many wideouts don't do a lot of run blocking in high school. Divas need not apply. The program has not produced too many true star receivers over the years, and has never had a player post 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Heisman winner Rodgers holds the team record at 942 yards in 1972.

Running backs, mobile quarterbacks, the Blackshirts defense and even the offensive line are far more illustrious positions in Huskers history than receiver. Enunwa said he didn't know much about the history of the position group when Nebraska recruited him out of California.

"When I looked them up more, it was all about blocking more than it was passing," the junior said. "This year, we worked on making both those things big."

So far so good for the Cornhuskers' perimeter warriors.

Huskers make crazy work like a charm

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
9:48
PM ET

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.

But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.

"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.

At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.

Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.

So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.

"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."

Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.

The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.

Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

[+] Enlargebo pelini
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.

Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.

"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."

The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.

Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.

Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?

"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."

Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.

"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."

Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.

Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.

"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."

But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."

The same crazy, winning course.

SPONSORED HEADLINES