BOULDER, Colo. — There was no debate on the Nebraska sideline as coaches and players discussed their fourth-quarter plan for the sputtering offense.
Nebraska was going to pound the Buffaloes with the bullish, downhill-style ground attack that had helped clinch wins over Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State.
The Huskers (9-3, 6-2 Big 12) turned physical at the right time Friday, handing the football off and following the late-game formula that’s worked throughout the Huskers’ late-season turnaround.
The only unfamiliar ingredient was freshman I-back Rex Burkhead, elusive and injury-free.
Thirteen plays. Eleven runs. Burkhead and the bunch covered 80 yards in nearly seven minutes on that decisive drive in the final quarter, sealing the Huskers’ fifth consecutive conference win, 28-20, before 52,817 fans at Folsom Field.
“We executed our football there,” NU coach Bo Pelini said. “I thought that was a statement drive for us, and that won us the football game.”
Burkhead took the ball nine times on that drive, totaling 55 yards. He scored on a 7-yard spurt that gave Nebraska a 28-14 lead with 6:43 left.
Less than seven weeks ago, Burkhead broke a bone in his foot in practice and seemed targeted for a rehab-filled November.
But subbing in for an overworked Roy Helu and running behind a seemingly energized offensive line Friday afternoon, Burkhead notched the first 100-yard game of his young career, finishing right at the century mark on 18 carries.
“The offensive line did a tremendous job,” Burkhead said. “They were really firing away up front. They were focused. We were really determined to get it in at that point. We needed it.”
It was somewhat surprising the way the NU offense so suddenly dominated the upset-minded Buffaloes (3-9, 2-6). The Huskers had produced just 134 yards on 38 plays before their game-sealing drive — and just 62 yards on their previous 24 plays.
But then again, Friday’s finish just served as another timely outburst of production for Nebraska, which has often stamped its wins with a run-filled, drama-destroying late drive.
Nebraska ran the ball eight times and amassed 68 yards on its final possession against Missouri. It went 74 yards on 10 running plays against Kansas, capping that drive with a touchdown in the final minute.
The Huskers didn't score points in the final quarter against Kansas State, but they used up the clock after running eight plays and gaining 16 yards. That included a fourth down quarterback sneak from the NU 36-yard line.
They've outscored Big 12 opponents 59-20 in the final quarter.
“Sometimes in the run game, you've got to acquire a rhythm,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “You've got to thump a little bit and wear the defense out. And those guys did a great job. They took that drive — honestly, on the sideline, Barney (Cotton) and I kind of looked at each other and said, ‘They were ready to go.’”
Nebraska was clinging to a 21-14 lead, but only because of big plays on special teams and defense.
Junior Niles Paul returned a punt 59 yards for the game’s first score with 3:34 left in the first quarter.
Senior safety Matt O’Hanlon intercepted a Tyler Hansen pass in the second and returned it for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Nebraska’s key offensive contributors were quiet.
Helu, who came in averaging 24.7 carries per game in November, had 40 yards on the ground after three quarters. He lost a fumble on his first run in the fourth.
Quarterback Zac Lee finished with just 73 passing yards, and he was hobbled much of the second half after a botched option play left him with a wrenched left ankle early in the second half. Freshman Cody Green briefly relieved him and took two snaps before Lee returned for the next series.
As they have all year, senior center Jacob Hickman said, the Huskers committed enough minor errors to stall out drives most of the game.
“We’re still waiting to see our best ball,” Hickman said. “Sometimes we go out there and just show great ability and great team effort, and sometimes we go and shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s been a season-long problem of those little things getting to us.”
But they got the little things right on the convincing fourth quarter drive, and there was nothing fancy about it. Almost every call was Nebraska’s “inside zone” run play, which gave Burkhead the freedom to make instinctive cuts at the line of scrimmage and explode between well-executed blocks.
It worked, Hickman said. And maybe — just maybe — it’s a blueprint to use next weekend in the Big 12 title game against Texas.
Said Hickman: “If we could come out and bring just those drives to Dallas ...”
|Yards per carry||4.8||3.6|
Nebraska is 49-20 all-time against Colorado.
|Florida Atlantic||Sept. 5|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 12|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 19|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 17|
|Iowa State||Oct. 24|
|Kansas State||Nov. 21|
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