LINCOLN — On a day when Nebraska's defense notched a shutout it has been waiting a year to get, Husker offensive guard Jon Zatechka got a touchdown he's been waiting for all of his life.
The Blackshirts' blanking of Texas Tech and Zatechka's first touchdown Saturday afternoon were featured elements of a 29-0 Big 12 Conference victory that strengthened the Huskers' argument for No. 1. The victory came before 75,764 fans, the 218th straight sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium, and improved second-ranked Nebraska to 6-0, 3-0 in the Big 12's North Division.
Defensively, Nebraska put on a brilliant performance that allowed the Huskers to notch their first shutout since a 49-0 win over Baylor on Oct. 12, 1996.
"It's a monkey off our back to get this shutout," Nebraska defensive tackle Jason Peter said.
Texas Tech finished with just 127 yards. Tech might have been held under 100 yards if cornerback Jerome Peterson had not missed a tackle that contributed to a 33-yard gain, the Red Raiders' longest of the day. The 127 yards were the fewest Nebraska has allowed since Baylor gained 117 last season.
Offensively, Nebraska overcame periodic struggles to finish with 446 yards - 400 on the ground - and claim a 13-minute advantage in time of possession. Ahman Green banged his way for 178 of the yards, marking the fifth straight game in which the junior from Omaha Central has topped the 100-yard mark.
Green, who had scored eight touchdowns in the previous two games, got one Saturday on a 7-yard run. He might have had a second touchdown, but he fumbled when he was hit 4 yards from the goal line. The football bounced forward into the waiting arms of Zatechka, a 290-pound senior from Lincoln East.
Zatechka became the first Nebraska offensive lineman to score a touchdown since Dean Steinkuhler scored on a 19-yard run on a "fumbleroosky" in the 1984 Orange Bowl. The last time a Husker lineman scored in a regular-season game was in 1980, when offensive guard Mike Mandelko covered a fumbled punt in the end zone against Iowa State.
"There's not a whole lot to tell about it," said Zatechka, when quizzed about the touchdown. "I just fell on the ball."
Zatechka's being in the right place at the right time merely was part of a day of good fortune for the Huskers, who posted their 40th straight win at home, their 34th consecutive regular-season conference victory and their 29th straight triumph on homecoming.
Top-ranked Penn State kept it from being a perfect day for NU when the Nittany Lions rallied from a 15-3 deficit to post a 16-15 win over Minnesota. A loss by the Nittany Lions undoubtedly would have moved Nebraska into the top spot in the national polls. Now the Huskers must wait until today, when the ratings are released.
"We saw at halftime that Penn State was losing, " Husker rush end Mike Rucker said. "We would have liked to have seen Penn State lose, but they must have played a good game, I guess. We'll just let the voting take care of itself. If we keep doing what we did today, we're going to be all right."
Nebraska trailed Penn State by 56 points in last week's Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters. The Nittany Lions held a 61-point edge on the Huskers in the USA Today-ESPN coaches' poll. Worrying about whether Saturday's developments might vault Nebraska past Penn State in the polls was not high on the Huskers' list of postgame priorities.
"We're happy Minnesota played Penn State close because it does nothing but help our cause," Nebraska rush end Grant Wistrom said. "We'll take any help that we can get.
"Obviously I think we are the best team in the nation, but we have to go out and prove that every week. People will laugh when we say this, but we still have a lot of big games left to play. We just have to try to improve every week, which is what we've been doing."
Some of Nebraska's biggest improvements this season have come with the defensive unit that began the season with eight new starters.
"Going all the way back to spring football, we said that with all the new people we had on defense that we'd start out slow," Wistrom said. "But once those young guys started getting game experience, we knew that we would pick it up.
"We have some young guys who are playing some great football now, and that's what we need as we come down the stretch. If you have some weaknesses, teams are going to try to exploit them. Right now, we're not showing very many weaknesses."
Texas Tech had difficulty operating against, much less exploiting, Nebraska's defense. The 3-3 Red Raiders, who came into the game ranked third in the Big 12 and 27th nationally in total offense with an average of 412 yards per game, ran only seven plays in Nebraska territory the entire game.
The Huskers had nine tackles that accounted for 43 yards in losses, including four quarterback sacks. Texas Tech finished with just 17 yards rushing, an average of 0.7 per attempt. Overall, the Red Raiders' 46 plays produced an average gain of 2.7 yards.
"The reason their defense is so tough is that they are fast," Texas Tech quarterback Zebbie Lethridge said. "They swarm to the ball. They make the plays they have to make. They do whatever it takes to stop the opposing offense.
"They have some great guys on that side of the ball. They will probably be high NFL draft picks. We knew going into the game that they would be tough."
It would have been tougher for Nebraska, Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said, had Lethridge been at full speed. The senior has been hindered by a sprained ankle suffered in a Sept. 20 loss to North Texas.
"I don't know how healthy Zebbie was," McBride said. "We felt like the one thing we had to do was come after him and squeeze him in the pocket, a lot like we did (Florida State's) Charlie Ward. We had to get up the field and give him a good push.
"We also hit him with a few blitzes late in the first half. I think the pressure really got to him. He threw a couple of grounders in there."
Lethridge, second in total offense in the Big 12 coming into the game, twice was flagged for intentional grounding when he fired the ball into the turf. Overall, Lethridge finished 10 of 20 for 110 yards. He lost 23 yards in five rushes.
"I think he was hampered by that ankle, which was to our benefit," Rucker said. "He couldn't do much running today, and you could tell he was hurting."
The Red Raiders were healthy enough defensively to make Nebraska earn most everything it got. Although the Huskers almost equaled their nation-leading rushing average of 401.8 yards a game, they averaged almost a yard less per carry Saturday than they had been averaging this season.
Texas Tech, which had allowed just one sustained scoring drive in its past two wins over Baylor and Kansas, limited the Huskers to 153 yards in the first two quarters.
Nebraska took a 3-0 lead late when Kris Brown kicked the first of his three field goals, a 32-yarder with 20 seconds left in the first quarter. Nebraska's next possession started after Jeremy Hernandez's 30-yard punt, with the Huskers moving 71 yards in 10 plays. Fullback Joel Makovicka caught the first touchdown pass of his career, a 3-yarder from quarterback Scott Frost, for a 10-0 lead 8:09 left in the half.
A 20-yard punt by Hernandez set up the next score, which came when Brown kicked a 41-yard field goal 2:42 before halftime. The Huskers had taken possession at the Texas Tech 44, but the drive stalled seven plays later at the Red Raiders' 24.
"I thought that at the end of the first half we were still in the game," Texas Tech Coach Spike Dykes said. "We weren't dominating the game, but when you're down 13 points at the half in a college football game, you've got a chance.
"But we didn't start off very good, and it sort of went from there."
Nebraska's first three possessions of the second half produced scoring drives of 44, 85 and 80 yards. Brown finished the first with a 35-yard field goal, Zatechka's touchdown closed the second and Green wrapped up the third with a 7-yard scoring run.
"We made a few adjustments at halftime," said Green, who has rushed for 529 yards in the past three games. "Their defense is tough. We just had to play smash-mouth football. There weren't any big scores, no big runs. It was basically 5 yards and a cloud of dust all day long."
That's exactly what Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne had expected from Texas Tech, which came into the game sixth in total defense in the Big 12 and 29th nationally.
"My main concern going into the game was that Texas Tech had played outstanding defense the last couple of weeks," Osborne said. "They are a real solid unit, and we really had to work to get our yards."
Said offensive guard Aaron Taylor: "I don't know if a lot of us expected the type of game that we had. We knew it was going to be a head-banger, but they still came out and played us tougher than we had projected."
In the end, Nebraska's defense banged the hardest. Texas Tech's longest possession of the game lasted just eight plays, and the Red Raiders never got closer than 36 yards from the Huskers' goal line.
Nebraska limited the Texas Tech offense to just 19 snaps in the final 30 minutes.
"In my book, we have the makings of a No. 1 defense," Rucker said. "We're getting better and better. You need a good defense to win a championship, and I think we're coming around pretty good."
The defense was good enough Saturday to help Osborne claim his 248th win in the 300th game he has coached since taking over 25 seasons ago.
"I didn't know it was," Osborne replied when asked about Game No. 300. "It's a lot of games, and I guess I've enjoyed most of them. There are a few I wish I could take back, but it's been a lot of fun.
"I've had some great players who've played well and some great coaches. I've appreciated that."
|Yards per carry||0.7||6.1|
Nebraska is 7-4 all-time against Texas Tech.
|Central Florida||Sept. 13|
|Kansas State||Oct. 4|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Nov. 15|
|Texas A&M||Dec. 6|
Nebraska has played 18 games on Oct. 18. See them all »
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