FRESNO, Calif. — In the unyielding heat of the night, a sweat-drenched, sellout crowd fanned themselves with game programs, wrappers, hats and anything else they could find discarded in the rows of Bulldog Stadium.
They were swooning over a temperature — 99 degrees at kickoff — unaided by a breath of wind. Of course, the Nebraska football team’s smoking hot start — en route to a 55-19 romp over Fresno State — might have bowled them over, too.
Swiftly and with maximum explosion, the Huskers shrugged off last week’s ugly performance against McNeese State with two touchdowns in the first three minutes of the game. Boom, Tommy Armstrong hit Jordan Westerkamp with a 70-yard pass for a score on NU’s fourth play from scrimmage. Pow, Ameer Abdullah backed it up with a 57-yard gallop to the end zone on the fifth play.
But after the teams traded special teams gaffes, it was freshman punt returner Demornay Pierson-El who put a stake in the heart of FSU’s hopes with an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“He’s a fearless guy back there and somebody back there who can really make plays,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Starting well helps, especially when the crowd was into the game. Kind of took the wind out of their sails.”
A prominent weakness of NU’s team for the last two years appeared to find its star Saturday night when Pierson-El calmly caught a punt at his 14, bolted hard left around most of the Bulldogs, only to cut back to the open field for the seventh-longest punt return in school history. He added a 51-yard return a few minutes later to set up a field goal, giving the Huskers a 27-5 halftime time cushion, comfy enough once the occasional leg cramps hit and the game dragged on into the night.
The big-play boys were back on offense — 562 total yards, plus eight plays of 20 yards or longer — and after a long hiatus, big plays reintroduced themselves to the punt return unit.
The Huskers’ defense, buoyed by the return of end Randy Gregory, didn’t wilt in the heat or the pace of the Bulldogs’ quick-but-relatively-punchless offense, which ran 87 plays, but only gained 346 yards. NU notched four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The secondary got a workout — Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell threw a whopping 59 passes, many of them short screens — but largely held strong, breaking up six passes.
If it seemed a late night and a long West Coast trip just to don those rarely-worn, all-white uniforms — a purposeful contrast to Fresno State’s all-red — and run up the score against a Bulldog team that insisted on an onside kick down 29 points consider this: NU is now one of just two Big Ten teams undefeated after three weeks of play, and some good vibes won’t hurt as the Huskers welcome Miami (Florida) and the 1994 Husker national title team for a primetime game next Saturday. Those Hurricanes beat Arkansas State 41-20 on Saturday and will be the most talented and complete squad Nebraska has played to date.
Error and bust-prone Fresno State wasn’t much of a match after Nebraska’s fast start.
The 41,031 fans watched the Huskers (3-0 overall) hit the jackpot on yet another third-down play to start the game, with a familiar Armstrong-to-Westerkamp connection. Westerkamp ran a vertical right through the middle of Fresno’s defense and was left uncovered by a botched-up Bulldog coverage scheme. Armstrong hit his best friend and roommate in stride, causing a gasp from three-fourths of the crowd and a cheer from the Huskers’ corner, which appeared to consist of about 10,000 fans. NU led 7-0.
Nebraska’s defense — with the help of pressure from Gregory, who returned after a minor knee injury and scope operation — quickly forced a punt. The Huskers’ offense went to a staple play — a power run out of the Pistol formation — and Abdullah made hay, cutting back into a giant hole made by left tackle Alex Lewis. He outran the Bulldogs to the end zone, and, with 12:03 left, Nebraska had all the lead it would ever need against a Fresno State team used to being behind this year.
Not that the Huskers didn’t let the Bulldogs (0-3) hang around a little. Linebacker David Santos handed them two points when he deliberately punched a bouncing punt out of his own end zone, an act Santos apparently found prudent, but in fact so wrong, rare and unexpected that officials had to confer before agreeing: Yes, that’s a safety.
“I thought I’d seen it all, but that one took the cake,” Pelini said.
Later, Husker kicker Drew Brown missed 43-yard field goal. But Fresno State, after driving to the NU 13, shanked its own field goal try. The Huskers drove for their own field goal before forcing another Bulldog punt.
That’s when Pierson-El romped 86 yards. That single play was 16 more punt return yards than NU gained all of last year, and proved Pierson-El prescient when he told reporters last week he was close to breaking a return for a score.
NU led 27-5 at halftime and wasted little time adding to the lead in the second half, going 75 yards in four plays, an Armstrong 20-yard pass to Cethan Carter putting the Huskers up 34-5. Burrell’s 66-yard run on a zone read — in which he outran gassed Husker safety Corey Cooper to the end zone — cut NU’s lead to 34-12. Pierson-El then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, booting the ball out of bounds at his own 2.
Not a problem. On third down in his own end, Armstrong hit sophomore walk-on Lane Hovey on a crossing route for a 29-yard gain. I-back Imani Cross then ran through a giant hole 62 yards for a touchdown. Armstrong tacked on a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam Cotton in the fourth quarter, while backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe added a 44-yard touchdown drive in garbage time after the Huskers recovered an onside kick.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck showed a few new wrinkles in his strategy, frequently using the wide receiver motion to keep safeties and linebackers thinking while running backs attacked the middle of the defense. Although he overthrew some receivers and needlessly stared down others, Armstrong still threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 completions; he added 65 rushing yards.
|Yards per carry||3.8||6.7|
Nebraska is 3-0 all-time against Fresno State.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
Nebraska has played 8 games on Sept. 13. See them all »
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