LINCOLN — Nebraska found that taking control of Saturday's game against Kansas State was as easy as 1, 2, 3.
One: The Huskers erased a one - point halftime deficit with a punishing 77-yard drive that ate up the first seven minutes and 19 seconds of the second half.
Two: Nebraska's defense raised some welts on Kansas State's offense and made a statement in forcing a punt after five plays.
Three: Fielding the ensuing kick at his 40-yard line, Nebraska's DeJuan Groce blew through a huge opening at midfield, sidestepped the punter and outran the last Wildcat to the end zone to complete a 60-yard scoring return.
"We got started off on the wrong foot," Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder said, referring to his team's third-quarter woes. "That happened first with the defense, then with our offense and then the kicking game. We were three strikes and out."
Second-ranked Nebraska's 14-point blitz in that nine-minute span of the third quarter paved the way for a 31-21 victory before 77,818 at Memorial Stadium that left the Huskers 11-0 and very much in control of their championship destiny.
"We just need to keep climbing the ladder," Nebraska rush end Chris Kelsay said. "As long as we keep our nose to the grindstone, we're going to be ready for anything that comes our way. We know it's not going to get any easier, but we're going to come back Monday and start preparing for Colorado.
"We're going to give them our best shot, and we know we'll get theirs, too."
Colorado represents the next challenge for the Huskers, who will need to defeat the Buffaloes on Nov. 23 to punch their ticket to the Dec. 1 Big 12 Conference championship game. If Nebraska can win those two games, the Huskers will find themselves playing for a national championship in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.
And if they do, they might look back to Saturday's win over a 4-5 Kansas State team as the perfect preparation for the rugged stretch run.
"This game just adds to the character this team has shown for 11 games," Groce said. "Other teams might make some big plays here and there, like Kansas State did today. But in the end, we find what it takes to pull it out."
After blowing a 13-point lead in the final three minutes of the first half, Nebraska responded quickly to provide some relief to the 247th consecutive sellout crowd that saw the Huskers run their nation-leading winning streak at home to 21 straight.
The turnout paid pregame homage to 23 Nebraska seniors who were playing their final home games, then got excited as the Huskers built a 13-0 lead with two touchdowns in the span of 23 seconds in the second quarter. Quarterback Eric Crouch gave Nebraska the lead when he scored on a 14-yard run to cap a 62-yard drive with 9:06 left in the second period.
The Huskers' lead grew to 13-0 when sophomore Willie Amos picked off an ill-timed pass by Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
The two quick scores helped hide what was otherwise a spotty first-half performance by the Huskers, who relied heavily on their defense to bail them out of tough spots in the first quarter. The Wildcats threatened on three of their first four possessions, twice taking possessions deep in Nebraska territory after turnovers.
Kansas State ran nine plays on Nebraska's side of the 50-yard line in the first 15 minutes, but wound up losing 16 yards on six rushes and seeing all three of Roberson's passes fall incomplete.
"The first quarter was pretty costly," Snyder said, "and the third quarter was pretty costly."
But the Wildcats made Nebraska pay for a couple of mistakes late in the second quarter, the first being a bad snap on a punt that led to Kyle Larson's kick being blocked and recovered at the Nebraska 7 - yard line. Roberson scored from the 5 two plays later and, less than three minutes later, drilled a 32-yard scoring pass to Aaron Lockett, who had toasted cornerback Pat Ricketts on a route across the middle.
Denied a victory celebration in 17 visits to Lincoln since 1968, the Wildcats were whooping it up over taking a 14-13 lead to the locker room. Obviously, things were less than cheery in the Nebraska quarters.
"They were a little quieter than normal," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "They felt they had let a good lead slip away, and that's not generally how this team has been. Certainly the determination and the effort was there.
"If we were going to be a great football team, we needed to come out and do that (make plays) in the second half. They were challenged, and I think they responded well."
Nebraska took the second half kickoff and, relying mostly on power running plays, drove 77 yards on 15 plays. The only pass on the drive resulted in the biggest completion in a game that saw both teams throw just 25 times.
Facing third and 12 from his 32-yard line, Crouch delivered a 17-yard pass to wingback John Gibson. Crouch threw only six other passes in the game, with only one of his other two completions producing positive yardage. That was a 45-yard screen pass to Thunder Collins, while his other completion resulted in a 2-yard loss for fullback Judd Davies.
"John did the best job that he could of putting himself in the right area," Crouch said. "That was third and long, and it was a play that we definitely needed. To come out and do what we did there, with the type of physical play, was really big for us. It helped us momentum-wise that we showed we could come out and move the ball."
Crouch, who finished with 106 yards rushing on 23 carries, had a 17-yard run to set up Dahrran Diedrick's 2-yard scoring run. Diedrick gained 39 of his 108 yards while carrying eight times on the drive. He also banged in for the two-point conversion that put Nebraska ahead 21-14 with 7:41 left in the third quarter.
Nebraska's defense stepped up again on Kansas State's next possession, producing back-to-back negative plays after the Wildcats had used a 10-yard run by fullback Rock Cartwright for a first down. Defensive tackle John Clanton dumped Roberson for a 3-yard loss, and linebacker Mark Vedral and rush end Demoine Adams combined to sack Roberson for a 10-yard loss.
After Roberson threw incomplete on third down, Kansas State punter Mike Ronsick unleashed a 40-yard kick that Groce fielded on his 40-yard line. He broke to his left, and found himself confronted with every punt returner's dream.
"I just saw this big old hole," Groce said. "I said, "Whoa, it's too big, I'd better get in there.' I just knew I had to beat the kicker, and then it was a race to the corner."
After blowing past Ronsick, Groce outran Cartwright to the end zone. For all practical purposes, that was game, set and match for Nebraska.
"I don't know if that cemented things, but it gave us some relief," Groce said. "Any time you score on special teams, it's a plus. And that was a big plus for us."
Nebraska would hike its lead to 31-14 after Amos' second interception and 50-yard return set up a 28-yard field goal by Josh Brown. Kansas State managed to get one more touchdown, with massive tailback Joe Hall crashing into the end zone from 1 yard out with 5:22 to play.
Nebraska wound up with a 48-yard edge in yardage, with 264 of the Huskers' 324 yards coming on the ground against a Kansas State defense that was second in the nation in shutting down the run. The Wildcats were yielding an average of 67.1 yards per game, and had allowed just two teams to gain more than 100 yards against them.
"Once we started running the ball at them, everything started clicking," Diedrick said. "They have a lot of big, strong guys on defense, and they were popping hard. But we were popping hard, too."
The Huskers will take a week off from heavy-duty popping as they start to prepare for their Nov. 23 game at Colorado. The Buffaloes, 6-1 in Big 12 play and 8-2 overall, could ruin Nebraska's bid to make it to the conference championship game by upsetting the Huskers.
That's something the Nebraska players say they just can't afford to let happen.
"I said before the season that going to Boulder and playing Colorado is going to be our toughest game," Husker linebacker Jamie Burrow said. "These next couple of games definitely are the biggest ones for us."
|Yards per carry||5.4||4.6|
Nebraska is 78-15 all-time against Kansas State.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 1|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 8|
|Iowa State||Oct. 6|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 20|
|Kansas State||Nov. 10|
|Miami (FL)||Jan. 3|
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