LINCOLN — Nebraska heads for a showdown in Seattle having raised as many questions as it has answered in its first two games.
Saturday's 38-24 struggle to subdue stubborn Central Florida again raised some concerns about the fifth- and sixth-ranked Huskers' readiness for this week's matchup with third-ranked Washington.
Can the Huskers' defense hold up against a Huskies' offense that will be more talented than either Akron's or Central Florida's? Can Nebraska's offense iron out the inconsistencies that led to Saturday's three-point halftime deficit against the 42-point underdog Golden Knights?
"We definitely know that we still have a lot of things to work on," Husker rush end Chad Kelsay said. "If we play next week like we did today, we're going to get smoked."
Kelsay's comments echoed what teammate Jason Peter said two weeks ago after Nebraska's 59-14, season-opening win over Akron. Several other Huskers said as much Saturday after Nebraska used a strong third-quarter showing to rally from its 17-14 halftime deficit.
But amid the uncertainty, Coach Tom Osborne wanted to make one thing crystal clear to the vocal minority in Saturday's 216th straight sellout crowd of 75,327 at Memorial Stadium. Senior Scott Frost is and will be Nebraska's No. 1 quarterback.
In directing five of Nebraska's six scoring drives against Central Florida, Frost completed 9 of 14 passes for 120 yards. He rushed 10 times for 52 yards. He threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sheldon Jackson and scored the Huskers' final touchdown on a 5-yard run.
Frost also heard boos when he re-entered the game in the second quarter, shortly after backup quarterback Frankie London had engineered a 65-yard scoring drive that gave the Huskers their first lead of the game. London's appearance had been predetermined, Osborne said, and was designed to get the Huskers' No. 2 quarterback valuable playing time in a crucial stretch of the game.
"Other than one or two plays today, Scott played flawlessly," Osborne said. "I didn't see anything he did wrong today. There might have been one or two passes he might have completed, but heaven's sakes, Joe Montana didn't complete every pass."
Asked if he was disappointed with the crowd's booing of Frost, Osborne replied, "I don't think that has any place in this stadium. The fans have seen these guys play a little bit. I've seen them play thousands of plays, every day. Scott is our starter."
Frost quieted his critics by leading Nebraska to scores on four of its first five possessions in the second half. He directed Nebraska to 17 third-quarter points, turning the halftime deficit into a 31-17 lead.
After Daunte Culpepper got Central Florida back within a touchdown midway through the final period, Frost punctuated Nebraska's win with a 69-yard drive that ended with his 5-yard runs. Completions of 12 yards, to Shevin Wiggins, and 33 yards, to Jackson, set up the final touchdown.
"We didn't play great today, but we executed pretty well," said Frost, who raised his record as a starter to 13-2. "There are some things we need to clean up, but I thought we started playing better in the second half. We got a little more intense."
Nebraska gained 255 of its 514 total yards in the final two quarters, when the Huskers threw just five passes in 42 snaps.
Nebraska's 37 rushing attempts in the second half gained 205 yards after 28 first-half carries had netted 159.
Overall, Nebraska amassed 364 yards rushing, with junior I-back Ahman Green leading the way with 113 yards on 25 carries. True freshman Correll Buckhalter added 82 yards on 11 carries, and fullback Jeff Makovicka tacked on 68 more on 11 attempts.
"Some of the blocks we were making in the first and second quarters weren't happening the way that we planned," Husker offensive guard Aaron Taylor said. "We adjusted on the run as the game went along, and when they got tired in the third and four quarters, we could do whatever we wanted to do."
Still, the Huskers never were able to deliver a knockout blow against the 0-3 Golden Knights, who relied heavily on Culpepper's big-play ability. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior completed 24 of 35 passes for 318 yards. He also rushed for 34 yards to account for 352 of Central Florida's 365 yards.
"Everything that they said about Culpepper is true," Peter said. "He's a great quarterback. We hit him hard, but he stayed in there and came through with some big plays. You have to give him credit."
Mark Nonsant, who finished with seven catches for 174 yards, produced three big receptions of 44, 43 and 42 yards. The 44-yarder set up Culpepper's 10-yard, first-quarter scoring run, and the 43-yarder set up Mike Grant's 2-yard touchdown run that put the Golden Knights ahead by three at halftime.
Culpepper also had completions of 24 yards to Charles Lee and 25 yards to Siaha Burley.
"Big plays like that kill a defense," Kelsay said. "We have to eliminate all those big plays that we're giving up, and that starts with the front four. People might criticize our defensive backs for some of the things that happened today, but the guys up front have to take it on themselves to get the job done.
"We can't expect the guys in the secondary to be back there seven and eight seconds covering guys."
Held without a sack in the opener against Akron, Nebraska dumped Culpepper three times for 21 yards in losses.
"I thought we did some good things," Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. "We tried to give the quarterback a bunch of different looks in the second half and keep him off-balance. We did that for a while, but we let up there a little bit. But overall, I thought we played well in the second half."
The first 30 minutes were a different story.
"We got an earful at halftime," Peter said.
Said All-America rush end Grant Wistrom: "Things were tense at halftime. That's probably the most fired-up I've ever seen Coach McBride. He let us know that we weren't playing very well. The difference in our play between the first half and the second half was night and day."
Nebraska's defensive effort picked up at the same time the offense started revving up. With freshman Joe Walker's 51-yard kickoff return providing a spark, Nebraska drove 43 yards on its opening possession of the second half. Kris Brown, who missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half, pulled the Huskers even when he nailed a 21-yarder with 10:20 left in the third period.
The Huskers took the lead by driving 64 yards in seven plays on its next possession. Buckhalter got 46 of the yards, including the final 13 on a sweep. Buckhalter, who finished with 82 yards on 11 carries, put Nebraska ahead 31-17 with 1:25 left in the third period on a 5-yard scoring run.
Nebraska's response to its halftime deficit pleased Osborne.
"We didn't lose our poise," he said. "It would have been easy to become a little bit unnerved when they were putting the heat on us, but I thought Scott Frost responded well. He made good decisions."
Frost's best might have been to ignore the fans' boos in the second quarter. Osborne and Frost's teammates appeared more upset with the fans than did the quarterback.
"I didn't pay too much attention to it," Frost said. Nebraska had failed to score on its opening two possessions of the game and fell behind 7-0 when Culpepper scored on a 10-yard run with 1:16 left in the first quarter. Frost countered by leading Nebraska on a 69-yard drive and hooking up with Jackson on a 16-yard touchdown pass.
Central Florida regained the lead on Fred Waczewski's career-best 51-yard field goal. London then took over, marching the Huskers 65 yards in eight plays. He completed a 30-yard pass to Kenny Cheatham, who made a diving catch, and sliced through the defense on an 8-yard touchdown run.
Grant's touchdown, which came two plays after Wiggins had fumbled a punt, gave Central Florida its improbable halftime lead.
"It was a huge moral boost for every UCF fan in the world," Golden Knights' Coach Gene McDowell said. "There's no way in the world that we should be leading at half. We're three or four years away from leading Nebraska at the end of any half, especially the last one."
With Frost leading the way, Nebraska restored order in the second half.
"I hope that any of the fans who are disappointed temper that disappointment with the realization that we played a good football team," Osborne said. "We clearly have a ways to go, and there are some things we have to improve. But the big thing is we got through it, we played a pretty good team and we won."
|Yards per carry||1.8||5.6|
Nebraska is 1-0 all-time against Central Florida.
|Central Florida||Sept. 13|
|Kansas State||Oct. 4|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Nov. 15|
|Texas A&M||Dec. 6|
Nebraska has played 8 games on Sept. 13. See them all »
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