LINCOLN — Nebraska takes special pride in beating opponents with its special teams.
Witness the third- and fourth-ranked Huskers’ 31-3 victory Saturday over Oklahoma State before 76,251 fans at Memorial Stadium.
NU struggled to its lowest offensive yardage total in 19 games — 317 — and led the Cowboys, 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Big Eight, by just a touchdown at halftime.
But in the first 16 minutes of the second half:
>> Wingback Tyrone Hughes returned a kickoff 40 yards to set up a 31-yard drive for a field goal and a 10-3 Nebraska lead with 9:09 to go in the third quarter.
>> Hughes returned a punt 19 yards, then quarterback Mickey Joseph raced 39 yards for a touchdown on the next play for a 17-3 lead with 7:17 left in the third quarter.
>> Inside linebacker Mike Anderson recovered Mike Clark’s muff of an NU punt, setting up a 32-yard touchdown drive for a 24-3 lead with 14:56 to go in the fourth quarter.
>> And cornerback Robert Hicks recovered Ronnie Fisher’s fumble on the ensuing kickoff in the end zone for the final 31-3 margin with 14:50 left in the game.
That kicking-game performance, in combination with a defense that allowed no touchdowns for the fourth time in seven games, pushed Nebraska to 7-0 and into first-place tie in the league with Colorado at 3-0.
“The kicking game was probably the biggest difference,” NU Coach Tom Osborne said. “That was really a big plus for us.
“I can really only remember one game this year where I didn’t feel we had a clear-cut plus in kicking. The rest have been very good.”
The reason, co-captain Reggie Cooper said, is because the Huskers want to be good at it.
“We’ve worked on the special teams more this year than we have in the past years I’ve been here,” the senior strong safety said. “We have a lot of confidence in it.”
At some schools, the call during practice for special-team drills is a call for many regulars to relax.
But not at Nebraska.
“We use a lot of good people on our special teams,” Osborne said. “And we work hard at it.”
Cooper vouched for that.
“The coaches make sure we’re intense during the kicking game,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll be doing it all day.
“We looked at Colorado’s season last year. In most kicking statistics, they were nationally ranked. They had a real good season because of the kicking game. Heck, they beat us on two punt returns.
“We took that as a steppingstone to making our team better with the kicking game.”
Nebraska also sparkled defensively Saturday.
The Huskers held Oklahoma State to no gain or minus yards on 19 of 50 running plays and limited tailback Gerald Hudson, the nation’s No. 4 rusher with a 134.5-yard average, to 47 yards in 17 carries.
Offensively, Nebraska got a fifth straight 100-yard rushing day from I-back Leodis Flowers. The junior out of Omaha Central carried 21 times for 138 yards and a touchdown to become the first Husker since Heisman Trophy-winner Mike Rozier in 1983 to string five 100s together. Rozier had 12 that season.
Osborne called Flowers “a great player.”
“He’s gotten tougher as time has gone on,” Osborne said. “He wasn’t anyone who lacked courage.
“But when you first come out of high school, sometimes you don’t realize what it takes to play at this level.”
Flowers’ 100-yard string started with 21 carries for 124 yards against Northern Illinois. After sitting out the Minnesota game with an injury, his totals have been 16 for 151 vs. Oregon State, 16 for 112 in one half vs. Kansas State, 16 for 111 vs. Missouri and 21 for 138 vs. Oklahoma State.
But OSU’s blitzing on nearly every down Saturday stopped other Huskers from running wild against a defense that allowed 390 yards to Northern Iowa and is ranked 74th nationally.
“We can’t say they surprised us,” Osborne said. “A lot of times this season, we’ve said, ‘Well, we weren’t ready for what they did.’
“We worked really hard on what they did. They blitzed a lot, and we had to do a lot of audibling. For the most part, Mickey Joseph handled things very well.”
Osborne said he played Joseph most of the way because the offense needed the extra step of quickness Joseph has over backup Mike Grant.
Joseph ran nine times for 60 yards and a touchdown and completed 4 of 8 passes for 26 yards and a 3-yard TD toss to a diving Johnny Mitchell. Grant ran three times for 4 yards and hit 2 of 5 passes for 25 yards with an interception.
The offense’s yardage total of 317, the lowest since Miami snuffed NU on 135 yards in the Orange Bowl after the 1988 season, was close to being much higher, Osborne said.
“There were several plays where we were just a step away from going,” he said. “We didn’t break as many as we wanted.
“It was just a day where it was going to be hard to put up many points.”
The first half was the quietest in this series since 1984, when OSU led 3-0 in a game NU eventually pulled out 17-3.
Nebraska’s return game looked as if it would get the Huskers a quick start as Hughes returned the opening kickoff 34 yards to the NU 35.
Nebraska made two first downs, then stalled at the OSU 34. Working into a 20- to 28-mph north wind, Osborne chose to punt.
After holding Oklahoma State on three downs, wingback Nate Turner returned a punt 12 yards to the NU 43.
Joseph hit Hughes with an 8-yard pass for a first down and Flowers ran 15 yards for another to the Cowboy 21.
OSU stiffened, forcing a fourth and one at the 12. This time, the Huskers gambled and won.
Joseph audibled a pitch play to the right to Flowers, who easily zipped 12 yards for the touchdown. Gregg Barrios kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead with 5:50 left in the first quarter.
But no one scored for the rest of the half.
The Huskers faced fourth and three at the OSU 32 on their next possession. But this gamble failed when Joseph was run out of bounds a yard short of the first down.
Oklahoma State bounced back with its only first-half possession of longer than five plays.
An offside penalty on Nebraska negated a fumble recovery at the OSU 30 on the second play of the drive. The Cowboys showed they also could convert on fourth down, getting 2 yards from fullback Cecil Wilson on fourth and one at the 50.
After another first down, the Cowboys were stretched to fourth and one again at the Nebraska 29. This time, NU middle guard Pat Engelbert stacked up Hudson for no gain to stop the drive.
Engelbert and NU tackles Kenny Walker and Joe Sims combined for 27 tackles, including 10 for no gain or a loss.
“We were doing a lot of slanting up front to counteract their zone blocking,” NU Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. “We had our slants going the way they were going, and it worked well.”
In the second half, OSU took the opening kickoff and drove 61 yards to the NU 10.
Redshirt junior quarterback Kenny Ford, making his first collegiate start, sprinted 52 yards on a quarterback draw for the longest run against NU this season.
But on first and goal from the 10, Cooper stuffed Ford for no gain.
On second and goal, outside linebacker Mike Croel sacked Ford for a 9-yard loss.
On third own, Ford ran for 2 yards, forcing the Cowboys to settle for Cary Blanchard’s 35-yard field goal that cut NU’s lead to 7-3 with 10:59 left in the third quarter.
Then the Huskers took over with their special teams.
Hughes took the ensuing kickoff back 40 yards to the OSU 45. On the first play, Flowers zipped for 24 yards, then had the ball stripped. But split end Jon Bostick recovered. Barrios finished the drive with a 31-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead.
OSU went three downs and out, Hughes returned the punt 19 yards and Joseph ran left on the short-side option 39 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
Two series later, Anderson recovered OSU’s muff of a punt at the Cowboy 31. After Flowers ran for 21 yards, Joseph lobbed a pass to tight end Mitchell, who leaped to haul it in with one hand while falling out of bounds in the end zone.
That NU touchdown with 14:56 left in the game was followed by another TD six seconds later when OSU return man Fisher dropped Byron Bennett’s kickoff at about the 5-yard line. The ball squirted into the end zone, where Hicks recovered for a touchdown and a 31-3 lead.
“Those two touchdowns in about 10 seconds really took the life out of Okie State,” Cooper said.
They were the first back-to-back touchdowns for Nebraska since 1981 in the third quarter of a win over Florida State. In that game, Irving Fryar returned a punt 82 yards for a TD, then Tony Felici picked a fumble out of the air on the ensuing kickoff and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
The rest of Saturday’s game was played in a cold rain, contributing to three interceptions and three lost fumbles in the final 11 minutes.
|Yards per carry||3.2||5.3|
Nebraska is 37-5 all-time against Oklahoma State.
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 8|
|Oregon State||Sept. 29|
|Kansas State||Oct. 6|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 20|
|Iowa State||Oct. 27|
|Georgia Tech||Jan. 1|
Nebraska has played 19 games on Oct. 20. See them all »
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