LINCOLN — As a week and a game full of adversity came bearing down on it, Nebraska’s football team found comfort in the crude power of a basic running play, the simplicity of defensive pursuit and raw emotion erupting from men of mild manners.
Without top I-back Rex Burkhead for the game — or coach Bo Pelini in the second half — NU beat Arkansas State 42-13, outgained the Red Wolves 527-286 and converted 10 of 13 third downs. And the defense tackled, tackled, tackled, holding ASU’s offense to two field goals despite five trips into Husker territory.
“We made a statement,” said safety Daimion Stafford, who finished with seven tackles and two mid-air blow-up shots on ASU skill players.
Pelini’s halftime departure for precautionary tests at an area hospital was the latest event in a long week for the No. 24 Huskers. They lost 36-30 to UCLA Sept. 8. Starting defensive tackle Chase Rome left the program Wednesday. And Nebraska faced ASU coach Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle, hurry-up offense full of motion and quick passes — just like the Bruin attack that tore apart the defense.
Losing the head coach just added an extra twist. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis took over on the field. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck stayed in the press box. The weight of the team fell to them, especially Papuchis, who stalked the sideline even more briskly than Pelini, even playing to the crowd on a key third-quarter drive, a boisterous side of the coach not seen in his quiet, analytical interviews.
“There are so many life lessons our guys can take from this,” Papuchis said while standing next to Beck in the postgame press conference. “It’s been a very trying and emotional week. And I’m glad to see the way our team fought today.”
In front of 85,290 fans at Memorial Stadium, NU (2-1 overall) battered Arkansas State (1-2) with the same unbalanced-line, inside power run that chalked up many of its 347 rushing yards.
“We ran the same play, 10, 20 times,” wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said. “Not to be cocky, but we knew what we could do.”
Braylon Heard ran it. Imani Cross ran it. But sophomore Ameer Abdullah — who finished with a career-high 30 carries for 167 yards — ran it best, twisting, darting and slipping out of tackles, scoring two short-yardage touchdowns.
“I like running the football,” said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Abdullah, spelling Burkhead for a second week. “It doesn’t matter, inside or outside, I just like running the football.”
“What a powerful inside runner he is," Beck said.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez complemented the ground game with a historic day. He completed 13 of 14 passes — the best completion percentage for an NU quarterback with at least 10 attempts — for 180 yards and two touchdowns to Kenny Bell, whose speed and hands kept ASU corners off balance.
Martinez did lose two fumbles on sacks — one of which the Red Wolves recovered for their only touchdown — but was otherwise razor-sharp with his passes and zone read calls.
“He was very efficient,” Beck said of Martinez, who Saturday joined Eric Crouch as the only Nebraska quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 2,000. “One of the things I told him: ‘Just be patient, they’re going to give us some opportunities.’ He converted on key third downs when we needed to. He looked poised. Understood where to go with the ball.”
Martinez directed a nine-play, 51-yard touchdown drive for the Huskers’ first score, then hit Bell for a 42-yard touchdown to cap a 67-yard drive. That gave NU a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
It’d be all the defense would need. The much-maligned unit slowed the Red Wolves’ offense in the first half before smothering it in the second.
Malzahn — who directed Cam Newton and Auburn to a national title in 2010 — had a variety of “trick stuff,” as Stafford put it, early in the game. Reverses. A fake Statue of Liberty play. A wide receiver pass from backup quarterback Fredi Knighten that was intercepted by safety P.J. Smith.
Arkansas State routinely ran its plays with 25 to 30 seconds still left on the play clock — no team to compete in Memorial Stadium has probably ever been faster between snaps — but Pelini called a timeout after the second play of the game, seemingly to make sure referees were giving NU time to substitute personnel.
After that, officials dutifully stood over the ball waiting for Huskers to shuttle on and off the field. Nebraska used a variety of players — including linebackers Zaire Anderson, David Santos and Sean Fisher — and three-man fronts to answer ASU’s plethora of formations.
“We knew we had to survive that initial surge,” said Papuchis, who conceded that Arkansas State had NU’s defense “on our heels a little bit” in the first two drives. “But once we could settle in, we had a pretty good idea of how they were going to attack us. And I was really pleased with the progress we made.”
NU defenders still missed a few tackles. But reinforcements were there — quickly. ASU’s longest play was just 22 yards. The Red Wolves converted just 6 of 16 third downs. Quarterback Ryan Aplin threw high and wide of several targets, finishing just 16 of 30 for 138 yards. Nebraska sacked him three times and hurried him four more times.
Still, ASU had one chance in the third quarter to make a game of it. After Pelini had left for the hospital. After Martinez had fumbled twice. After Arkansas State had recovered a punt that apparently grazed the heel of Abdullah — who swore after the game the ball never touched him — at the NU 15-yard line. The Huskers led 28-10.
“We had our backs to the wall,” Stafford said. “It was either them or us. And it’s not gonna be us. We had to be ready.”
No gain on first down. ASU incompletions on second and third down. The Red Wolves — who gained just 89 yards in the second half — settled for a field goal. Martinez directed touchdown drives of 57 and 43 yards to put the contest out of reach.
Afterward, Stafford fielded questions on a variety of topics. The only one off limits: Pelini’s health, about which Husker players were instructed not to speak. But his absence was an obstacle to overcome. So were all of the negativity, Rome’s departure and a quick-paced offense.
“We worry about things we can control,” Stafford said. “We can’t control a guy leaving the team. We can’t control the past. Only thing we could control was Arkansas State. That what we had to do.”
That’s what Nebraska did.
|Yards per carry||4.0||5.9|
Nebraska is 2-0 all-time against Arkansas State.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 1|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 15|
|Idaho State||Sept. 22|
|Ohio State||Oct. 6|
|Michigan State||Nov. 3|
|Penn State||Nov. 10|
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