LINCOLN — They weren't the Cornhuskers of old, not even close, but when 315-pound nose tackle Patrick Kabongo leaped into the arms of a terrified teammate late Saturday, you knew something was going right for Nebraska.
It was Bo Ball.
Could you imagine it? Nebraska's secondary dancing in a circle in the middle of the field? Bo Pelini cracking a smile? The defense — the same group of rag-tags that caught all the heat in 2002 — saved the Huskers on Saturday in a 17-7 season-opening win over No. 24 Oklahoma State.
"I had a ball," said Pelini, who was hired in December to fix the Blackshirts. "Our defensive players, they're men of great character. They want to be good. They want to be great."
For one afternoon, at least, life got back to normal in Lincoln. A sellout crowd of 78,058 stuck around until the end to watch the Huskers beat a ranked opponent for the first time since October 2001. It wasn't vintage Nebraska, and all those fancy plays the fans had hoped for with a new offensive coordinator never got unveiled.
But for a team that finished 7-7 last year, it was a start.
The day started with nostalgia and more than 800 letter-winners swarming the Huskers as they ran out onto the field. Oklahoma State was the team that shocked the Huskers last year in Stillwater, that zinged passes at All-American Rashaun Woods and picked apart a leaky secondary.
Reinforcements, it appeared, were necessary. Especially when the Cowboys marched 52 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive. The lettermen got antsy, the crowd got quiet.
Pelini was just toying with them. His defense smacked Josh Fields with two solid hits in the second quarter, and the OSU quarterback was rendered ineffective for the rest of the day. He flung side - armed passes to the sideline as Nebraska's defense zeroed in.
He found Woods just five times for the day for 47 yards.
"The thing that really made me proud," Pelini said, "is that when we got hit in the face like that, no one panicked. Everybody responded the way I thought they would. They kept their calm. They were cool."
The Cowboys went into halftime with a 7-3 lead, but the game turned on one play from the defense early in the third quarter. OSU tailback Tatum Bell was trying to stretch a 1-yard gain when he fumbled on the 15-yard line. Linebacker Barrett Ruud scooped the ball up and ran in for a touchdown.
It was one of five turnovers Saturday for the defense, which managed just three in its biggest game last year.
Take away the turnovers and things weren't looking so promising for the Huskers. Their special teams sputtered, as Sandro DeAngelis missed two field goals in the first half. As the clock ran down before halftime and DeAngelis was sent out to kick a 33 - yarder with 13 seconds left, he was greeted with boos. They got louder when DeAngelis' attempt was blocked.
And then there was the offense. Coach Frank Solich said he had nightmares before the game of new Offensive Coordinator Barney Cotton throwing deep on the first play. He might toss and turn for other reasons this week.
Jammal Lord hit 8 of 16 passes on Saturday, slightly better than his 47 percent passing efficiency last year. He also threw an interception and had just 78 yards in the air. And the Huskers struggled in the red zone, failing to capitalize because of penalties and a fumble.
Solich defended the conservative play-calling.
"You can say what you want," he said, "but what won the ballgame for us was our ability to wear them down, to pound them a little bit. I think you noticed that gains that were maybe three or four yards in the first half became six, seven, eight-yard gains in the second half.
"When you're playing physical, when you feel it's going to take a toll, you don't veer away from it too much."
The offense didn't get its first touchdown until there was 2:09 to go in the third quarter and Judd Davies busted in for a 2 - yard run. But even that drive was set up by a turnover, as Ryon Bingham recovered a fumble and returned it to the OSU 13.
"Everybody knows the Blackshirts are back," said NU cornerback Fabian Washington. "It shows the system Coach Pelini put in is a great system, and when 11 guys run to the ball, it's going to work."
Pelini, who hugged Cotton at the end of the game, said players, not coaches, win ballgames.
But with a revamped coaching staff, Nebraska is expected to jump back in the rankings today for the first time since last September. Solich, whose team had ended 2002 with three straight losses, downplayed the hype.
"I don't know how people around the country are going to view it," he said. "But we view it as a good start."
|Yards per carry||2.9||4.1|
Nebraska is 37-5 all-time against Oklahoma State.
|Oklahoma State||Aug. 30|
|Utah State||Sept. 6|
|Penn State||Sept. 13|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 25|
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Oct. 4|
|Texas A&M||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Oct. 25|
|Kansas State||Nov. 15|
|Michigan State||Dec. 29|
Nebraska has played 5 games on Aug. 30. See them all »
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