LINCOLN — Before the season, the Nebraska defense set a goal to score a touchdown a game.
“But we like to overachieve, “ strongside linebacker Jamel Williams said Saturday.
Which is exactly what the Blackshirts did, scoring two touchdowns on interception returns by roverback Mike Minter and rush end Grant Wistrom and setting up a third with another pickoff in a 55-14 romp over Michigan State before 75,590 fans at Memorial Stadium.
Top-ranked Nebraska’s kicking game was almost as effective.
Cornerback Mike Fullman, who three weeks ago wondered if an injury might end his career, showed Johnny Rodgers- type moves in returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in a 20-point second quarter. And Fullman did it with Nebraska having only 10 men on the field.
Free safety Eric Warfield’s blocked punt and another Fullman punt return of 17 yards set up two more third-quarter touchdowns and helped the two-time defending national champions cruise in their season opener and stretch their school-record winning streak to 26.
“I can’t remember a game, “ Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said, “where we scored so many times on defense and in the kicking game.”
That’s because there hasn’t been a three-touchdown game in those categories in Osborne’s 24 years as head coach. To find one, you have to go back to 1970 against Oklahoma State when the Huskers got a 57-yard interception return from John Adkins, a 66-yard punt return from Rodgers and a 73-yard interception return from John Decker in a 65-31 win.
The explosiveness of Nebraska’s defense and special teams helped make up for a sputtering offense.
In transfer quarterback Scott Frost’s first game, the Huskers gained 298 total yards — the lowest since Kansas State held NU to 262 in 1994. Nebraska gained 666 yards on Michigan State last year in a 50-10 win.
NU’s 184 yards on the ground was the lowest since gaining 136 against Ok- lahoma in 1994. The longest run from scrimmage by the defending national rushing champions was 19 yards.
“I wasn’t totally pleased with the offense today, “ said Osborne, the offensive coordinator. “I thought we did OK.
“Don’t just say our offense wasn’t good. Michigan State played good defense. They don’t just give you a whole lot.”
Frost rushed 10 times for 58 yards and one touchdown and completed 5 of 12 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown.
“Scott played very well, “ Osborne said. “For a first game, I couldn’t be more pleased.
“The thing I always like to get a feel for is if he’s excitable. He wasn’t excited. He understood perfectly what we were trying to do.”
Center Aaron Taylor said Frost had one awestruck moment playing in Memorial Stadium for the first time.
“After we come out of the tunnel before the game, the first offense is sup- posed to get together to run some plays, “ Taylor said. “We couldn’t find Scott for a while, but then he came over.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t done this before.’ I just smiled and said, ‘C’mon, rookie.’ But he played like a veteran. It was comforting to see the confidence that he showed.”
Frost said his only goal entering the game was to win.
“Coach Osborne kept the play-calling pretty conservative for a reason, “ Frost said. “I’m a new quarterback coming into the system. There’s no reason to take a lot of chances with the defense we have.
“We played really well on defense and in the kicking game. That took a lot of pressure off the offense.”
After Nebraska gained one first down on its first two possessions, the defense provided its first boost. Minter intercepted Michigan State quarterback Todd Schultz’s sideline pass and returned it 3 yards to the Spartan 22. Schultz, pressured on the play by Wistrom and tackle Jason Peter, limped off with a sprained knee and didn’t return.
The NU offense turned the turnover into a score in two plays. I-back Ahman Green bolted for 11 of his 71 yards. Then Frost kept the ball on an option right and scored from the 11. Kris Brown’s extra-point kick put the Huskers ahead 7-0 with 8:05 left in the first quarter.
The lead grew to 10-0 with 11:59 to go in the second quarter when Brown capped a 14-play, 63-yard drive with a 35-yard field goal.
On the next series, the Blackshirts held Michigan State to 3 yards in three plays to force a punt.
Fullman fielded the kick at the Nebraska 38, hopped up the middle of the field to spit two defenders, cut left toward the sideline to avoid three more tacklers, got a block from Warfield and sprinted on for a 62-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead.
“That was awesome. Simply awesome, “ Taylor said. “Standing on the sideline watching the replay, we were saying we probably couldn’t even have fielded the ball because it looked like he had 800 guys around him.”
It looked that way for two reasons, NU Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. First, the Huskers were a man short. Second, they were trying to block the kick.
“And he still ran it back, “ McBride said, smiling.
Fullman wasn’t running anywhere three weeks ago. The senior from Roselle, N.J., was on crutches because of pain from a chronic inflammation near the pelvic bones.
“I really thought that maybe his career was over, “ Osborne said. “It has been a career-ender for two or three guys here.”
Two series after Fullman’s touchdown, Michigan State made its deepest move into Nebraska territory in the first half. The Spartans used a trick play — a 31-yard halfback pass from Sedrick Irvin to split end Nigea Carter — to even- tually get to the Husker 22.
But on third-and-15 from the 28, Minter picked off quarterback Gus Ornstein’s sideline pass and galloped 84 yards for a touchdown and a 24-0 lead.
“Right before that play, they had used the same exact route and got sacked, “ Minter said. “They came right back with it. I read it, broke on the ball and took off.”
Middle linebacker Jon Hesse, NU’s second-leading tackler Saturday with nine, said Minter’s interception and return for a 24-0 lead changed the game for good.
“It was huge, “ Hesse said. “That was a 14-point swing. They went from thinking they were going to get close to having the wind taken completely out of them.
“It was great. That’s the way we want to play defense around here. The whole nature of our defense is to dictate the pace and make things happen.”
When NU’s defense held Michigan State on three downs again, the offense got the ball back at its 46.
Green ran for 19 yards, and with 15 yards added for a personal foul, Nebraska was at the MSU 20 with 1:30 to go. But the offense stalled at the 7, so Brown kicked a 24-yard field goal for a 27-0 lead with 51 seconds to go.
In the third quarter, Warfield’s punt block at the Michigan State 16 set up Green’s 1-yard touchdown run for a 34- 0 Nebraska lead.
The Spartans came back with an 87- yard touchdown drive, scoring on a pass on fourth-and-goal at the 1 to cut the lead to 34-7 with 8:43 left in the third quarter.
But Frost’s 35-yard touchdown pass to split end Brendan Holbein, Wistrom’s 9-yard interception return of a screen pass and backup quarterback Matt Turman’s 30-yard TD pass to split end Kenny Cheatham put Nebraska in front 55-7 with 11:29 left in the game.
Michigan State, which scored a touchdown against NU’s No. 3 and 4 defense with 2:11 to play, finished with 246 total yards.
“I didn’t expect to do that well, “ McBride said of his defense. “For some reason, I didn’t feel as prepared for this game as a year ago when we played them.
“I guess I was wrong. The thing I may have discounted is the leadership we have on this defense and the desire these guys have to do well.”
In a 52-14 win over Purdue a week earlier, Michigan State gained 472 yards and played without a sack or a turnover. But on Saturday, the Spartans were sacked seven times, gave up the ball four times and went 3 of 19 on third- down conversions.
“I thought Michigan State, with a game on us and having played so well, had a good chance to beat us, “ Osborne said. “So overall, you certainly have to be pleased with how it went.
“It was a great start against what I thought was a pretty good football team.”
|Yards per carry||1.7||4.0|
Nebraska is 9-2 all-time against Michigan State.
|Michigan State||Sept. 7|
|Arizona State||Sept. 21|
|Colorado State||Sept. 28|
|Kansas State||Oct. 5|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 19|
|Iowa State||Nov. 16|
|Virginia Tech||Dec. 31|
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