LINCOLN — Such a basic, harmless thing, fielding a kickoff. Like a runner grabbing a baton.
But Washington freshman Bishop Sankey bobbled Brett Maher’s third-quarter boot. The player tried to pick it up, couldn’t, planted his facemask in the turf and, like a helpless crab, threw his arms out in futility.
Nebraska senior linebacker Mathew May pounced on the ball at UW’s 1. Rex Burkhead scored a touchdown on the next play for a 34-17 NU lead.
“It’s like a present in your hands,” Burkhead said.
Maher to Sankey to May to Burkhead — to the cleaners. And thus a furious game that had been played to a near dead heat was iced in an instant.
Even if it took two more hours and hundreds of yards for Nebraska to finally outlast Washington 51-38, the final installment of the trilogy climaxed just after head coach Bo Pelini delivered
another what-are-we-made-of halftime speech.
“Football’s a lot about who’s the toughest guy,” left tackle Jeremiah Sirles recalled Pelini saying. “We wanted to come out swinging.”
Done deal. NU’s five-minute dominance in three phases of the game, as they happened:
» The defense forced a three-and-out on UW’s first drive.
» Burkhead drew a kick catching interference penalty by fielding a missile punt in the teeth of the Huskies’ coverage unit.
» After the Huskies barked about the call — and got a sideline penalty for their efforts — NU scored a touchdown in nine plays. Eight of them were runs. The Huskers led 27-17.
» May — who’s missed parts of the last two seasons with injuries — then bolted 70 yards down the field to recover Sankey’s fumble. Burkhead scored the touchdown.
On a day when Nebraska steamrolled UW for 309 rushing yards and levied several big hits, May’s hustle-and-scoop was emblematic, Pelini said, of the Huskers’ sheer want-to, their ability to close like good teams do.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Pelini said. “We talked about it in the locker room — to come out and impose our will on those guys to start the second half.”
UW coach Steve Sarkisian — whose diverse, motion-heavy offensive scheme matched Pelini chess move for chess move — had to agree.
“The sequence of plays during the third quarter were really the difference of the ballgame,” he said.
Pelini said the momentum switch began in the second quarter, when sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez completed four passes in 90 seconds so Maher could make a 35-yard field goal at the halftime gun. Nebraska led 20-17 after a first half full of haymakers thrown by both teams.
In front of 85,110 fans at Memorial Stadium, NU (3-0) opened the game with Martinez’s 50-yard option pass to redshirt freshman Kenny Bell. Martinez flipped to fullback Tyler Legate on the next play for a 7-0 lead. It took the Huskers 34 seconds to score.
Washington (2-1) took just 2:32 to answer. Sophomore quarterback Keith Price — a cooler hand in one drive than Jake Locker was last year in 120 minutes — found receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 38-yard touchdown.
Punch. Counterpunch. A Nebraska field goal. Another Price-to-Kearse touchdown. Ameer Abdullah returned a kickoff 66 yards and Martinez found freshman running back Aaron Green for a 25-yard touchdown. UW answered with a field goal of its own. Short of a trick play, the Huskies and Sarkisian threw every schematic and personnel wrinkle at NU’s defense, gaining 204 first-half yards.
“A lot of different formations, a lot of different adjustments,” Husker junior linebacker Will Compton said. “They tried to get you confused. We had to adjust to it. That was going to determine how we played.”
In the third quarter, Nebraska’s defense forced two punts and stopped the Huskies on fourth down at the Husker 12, junior defensive end Cameron Meredith, at long last, corralling Price for a sack. Pelini charged 15 yards out onto the field, pumping his fist with gusto, while Meredith pointed to a roaring crowd in South Stadium.
NU led 37-17 after three quarters.
“The fourth quarter — we’d like to have that back,” Compton said, shaking his head.
Cue the track meet. Washington dropped 21 points and 153 yards in that final quarter — one-third of it came on Price’s 52-yard touchdown pass to James Johnson — while Nebraska’s offense repeatedly ran power plays with Burkhead, Green and freshman back Braylon Heard down the Huskies’ throat.
Pelini assumed some of the blame for the sloppy defense — “I thought we could just use some clock. I didn’t really care about points at that point” — but Nebraska didn’t end the threat until Austin Cassidy intercepted a pass with 1:32 left.
The head coach declared in his postgame press conference that the sky wasn’t falling on his defense. Especially since cornerback Alfonzo Dennard again didn’t play — and Pelini didn’t even consider playing him. And the offense that racked up 464 yards and finally showed a power push hadn’t arrived yet, either.
What he liked was NU’s toughness in the moment, the game-changing plays that earned his team a much-desired win over a Washington team that had punked Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
“We wanted this game bad,” Compton said.
|Yards per carry||4.7||5.6|
Nebraska is 5-4 all-time against Washington.
|Fresno State||Sept. 10|
|Ohio State||Oct. 8|
|Michigan State||Oct. 29|
|Penn State||Nov. 12|
|South Carolina||Jan. 2|
Nebraska has played 10 games on Sept. 17. See them all »
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