LINCOLN — As he walked out of Memorial Stadium Saturday, Nebraska left guard Seung Hoon Choi fought to stifle a yawn in the sleepy September heat.
After an eight-month cram session and a full reckoning of all their flaws, Choi and the rest of NU’s offense had just taken their first exam of the 2012 season.
The Huskers earned an A for execution, racking up 632 total yards — the most in coach Bo Pelini’s five-year tenure — in a 49-20 win over Southern Mississippi. NU gained eight yards per play, converted a jaw-dropping 12 of 15 third downs, gave up just one sack, committed a single penalty and didn’t have a turnover.
“Efficient,” Pelini said.
“Dominant,” receiver Quincy Enunwa said.
“Exciting,” said quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns. “We finally got out there and showed what kind of offense we actually are.”
Ten Huskers caught passes. Nine ran the ball. It was an empty-the-bench, earn-a-letter day in front of 85,425 fans. Until NU chose to bleed clock in the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Tim Beck kept the attack at his briskest pace yet, sometimes running plays with 23 to 27 seconds left on the play clock.
“We didn’t have the ability to keep up with them,” USM coach Ellis Johnson said.
And Beck’s engine purred like that while starters Rex Burkhead, Ben Cotton and Tim Marlowe missed most of the game with injuries.
The biggest loss was Burkhead, who ripped off a career-long 57-yard touchdown run on the Huskers’ fourth play from scrimmage. He sat glumly for the final three quarters with what Pelini described as a low-grade MCL knee strain. Twenty minutes after the game, he walked by reporters without stopping but did not appear to be limping. Pelini listed the senior I-back as “day-to-day, week-to-week.” Cotton had a rib cartilage injury. Marlowe’s right arm was in a sling after the game.
None of those wounds slowed the Huskers. Burkhead, Cotton and Marlowe’s respective replacements — Ameer Abdullah, Jake Long and Jamal Turner — combined for 207 total yards and two touchdowns.
“We were in an uncomfortable situation,” Beck said. “A lot of key players were out. And guys stepped up. That’s the difference of this team — and other teams we’ve been around — they’re not going to let each other down.”
Said running backs coach Ron Brown: “There was resolve. A non-negotiable stake in the ground that said: ‘Let’s do what we do best.’”
Which, on Saturday, was pretty much everything. But especially the passing game.
Showing off a higher release point and more progression of his reads, Martinez started sharp and stayed that way, completing 26 of 34 passes. Martinez enjoyed ample time to throw, and a crowd that’s often hot-and-cold on the junior settled into a silent confidence as he dealt, followed by applause after delivery.
Beck’s passing attack hinges on the silent, on-the-fly chemistry between quarterback and receiver. They had it Saturday.
“You saw the experience of being in this offense,” Beck said. “Guys knew when to turn in and turn out. They knew when to stop running and when not to stop. And they resulted in bigger plays for us ... guys kind of figured that stuff out. And we’re better at it.”
When the Golden Eagles brought blitzes, Martinez quickly threw to hot reads like Kyler Reed (five catches, 57 yards) and Enunwa (six for 70). When USM stayed in coverage, Martinez executed play-action fakes and waited for receivers to clear into open seams downfield, which they often did.
“I saw this coming,” receiver Kenny Bell said of Martinez, who worked this summer with a personal quarterbacks coach. “You’re a product of anything you work on. The kid’s worked so hard, it wasn’t just not going to show. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Martinez hit Bell on a 26-yard post-corner route for NU’s second touchdown and a 14-0 lead. After Southern Mississippi wide receiver Tracy Lampley answered with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Martinez drove the Huskers to the USM 11-yard line before kicker Brett Maher missed the first of two field goals.
After the Golden Eagles tied the game with a 73-yard touchdown drive, Martinez led an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive. He ended it with a calm, 9-yard flip to a wide-open Long for a touchdown.
“Probably the biggest adrenaline rush he’s ever had,” quipped right guard Spencer Long, Jake’s twin brother.
Just before halftime, Martinez conducted a five-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, culminating with a 29-yard fade route to Steven Osborne. That gave Nebraska a 28-17 lead and Martinez 247 passing yards at the break. Southern Mississippi’s zone-read heavy attack — which employed three quarterbacks — lacked the punch to keep up, losing a fumble and punting three times in the second half.
That’s when the Huskers’ running game kicked in. Beck called runs on 20 of Nebraska’s final 25 plays. Abdullah gashed through USM’s line for 8 and 19 yards. Sophomore Braylon Heard ripped off runs of 20 and 10, the latter a third-quarter touchdown. And true freshman Imani Cross carried the ball on eight of Nebraska’s last nine snaps.
Pretty thorough. Pretty smooth.
As just as many reporters swarmed him as any Husker player, Beck admitted he had to smile a bit over the performance. But not much. He got the same question about Martinez at least four times. He offered short, measured answers to queries about Nebraska’s best day of offense since the final throwaway, score-it-up games of the Bill Callahan era. Beck had his reasons for humility.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Beck said. “But, I mean, we got UCLA next week, right?”
|Yards per carry||3.9||6.2|
Nebraska is 5-1 all-time against Southern Miss.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 1|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 15|
|Idaho State||Sept. 22|
|Ohio State||Oct. 6|
|Michigan State||Nov. 3|
|Penn State||Nov. 10|
Nebraska has played 5 games on Sept. 1. See them all »
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