Nebraska Cornhuskers: Big Ten

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

October, 28, 2013
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Bo Pelini sees football as a series of basic decisions. Black and white. No room for gray area. He says it often.

To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?

Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.

Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesIn his comeback from a foot injury at Minnesota, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez had a rough game.
Nebraska made no move to capable backups Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III. For three games this season as Martinez was sidelined by injuries, Armstrong and Kellogg helped the Huskers win.

When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.

Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.

Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?

The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."

"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."

He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.

But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.

His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.

It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.

But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.

It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.

It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.

He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.

Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.

A score of 50 is average.

Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.

The least of Nebraska's problems?

That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.

And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.

Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.

Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.

Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.

Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.

Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.

And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.

Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.

For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Play calls in football have unusual names. Coaches assign the words to ensure clarity in the language barked at the line of scrimmage, to offer a reminder of the formation or personnel.

Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.

Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.

Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota took a page out of Nebraska's playbook to pull out the victory against the No. 24 Huskers.
Yes, Minnesota went big against 24th-ranked Nebraska in this 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Huskers at their own once-dominant game, punishing the Blackshirts in a way Nebraska has for 50 years trounced Minnesota.

The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.

You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.

Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.

“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.

Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.

Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.

“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”

They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.

Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.

A small army of Huskers limped off the field.

“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”

Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.

“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”

It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.

And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.

You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?

“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”

Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.

Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”

Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.

“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.

It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.

“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”

Saturday gave them belief.

Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.

The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.

It’s a new age at Nebraska.

At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.
Michigan’s four-year absence from the Nebraska schedule, beginning next season, will end in 2018 as the Huskers open Big Ten play at the Big House on Sept. 22 of that year.

And then the Wolverines disappear again for the Huskers.

The 2018 and 2019 league schedules, released on Wednesday by the conference, show that Nebraska and Michigan -- which played as Legends Division opponents in 2011 and 2012 and will meet again this season on Nov. 9 in Ann Arbor -- are set to play just once in a six-season stretch from 2014 to 2019.

Meanwhile, after breaking from Ohio State for three years, the Huskers get the Buckeyes every season from 2016 to 2019.

The nine-game conference schedule, which begins in 2016, contributes to the creation of such oddities. The Big Ten’s current Legends and Leaders setup will shift to East and West divisions next season as Rutgers and Maryland join the league, pushing its membership to 14 programs.

In 2018, the Huskers are set to face a formidable Big Ten road lineup of Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa. Nebraska gets Big Ten home games that season with Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State. One nonconference slot remains unfilled for 2018, with home games set against Colorado and Troy.

In 2019, the Huskers will face Ohio State in Lincoln, plus Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa at home. They travel to Illinois (for the Big Ten opener), Minnesota, Purdue and Maryland, marking Nebraska’s first visit to the College Park campus. The nonconference lineup is complete for 2019, with South Alabama and Northern Illinois at Memorial Stadium, sandwiched around a trip to Colorado.

Planning for success: Nebraska

October, 10, 2013
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Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, as a Big 12 coach from 2008 through 2010, won two-thirds of his games away from Lincoln.

Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, it’s 46 percent.

As Nebraska prepares to leave Memorial Stadium on Saturday for the first time in six games this year to visit Purdue, the plan calls for a heightened attention to detail to avoid the problems that have plagued this program of late.

“We have to have a great focus and a great determination,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “and with the fact that it is a [noon ET kickoff], we need to get ready and go play.”

Now, the challenge this week against the 1-4 Boilermakers differs from what the Huskers faced in their initial Big Ten road tests of the past two seasons, blowout losses at Wisconsin and Ohio State. Nor is this similar to Nebraska’s two most recent journeys away from home -- neutral-site losses to end last season against Badgers and Georgia in which Pelini’s team allowed 115 points.

Still, many of the same principles remain. Distractions and discomfort can mount more easily away from home. When things have gone wrong for the Huskers recently on the road, they’ve gone very wrong.

According to Pelini, “it’s always a concern” to play on the road with a young team. The Huskers are young at every level on defense, and they appear set to start redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong at quarterback for the third consecutive game in place of the injured Taylor Martinez.

“It’s always an issue,” the coach said. “It’s something we’ll talk about. I’m kind of glad the game is early. You get up and go play. Guys are used to getting up early. I think that will help us to a certain extent. I think it will be a good experience for our guys.

“Some of them have been on road trips but there’s a difference between being on a road trip and walking out there as a starter in the first play.”

Pelini said he stressed to his players to sharpen their focus early in the week. He encouraged them to watch film on Monday as they broke from practice and to get ready for a hard week on the field.

“I kind of talked about that in the preseason going in, where I thought we would be to start and the level of work that was in front of us,” Pelini said. “The schedule set up well for us as far as being able to get that accomplished. I think it’s playing out to a certain extent, because I’ve seen a significant amount of progress in the past couple weeks.”

Saturday marks the first road test for sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory, a Nebraska newcomer who committed to Purdue out of high school in Fishers, Ind., but landed at an Arizona junior college.

Gregory said he enjoyed the five-game home stand but that he’s ready to go on the road. He said he thinks the Huskers will handle it well.

“It’s a lot different than here,” Gregory said of the atmosphere at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. “Our fans travel pretty well. They haven’t been able to fill up their stadium for a while, so we might be able to have just as much red as they have black and gold.”

Such a scenario might allow the Huskers to feel right at home, perhaps a good thing in more ways than one.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Ameer Abdullah saves his best for the Big Ten.

Through four games before Saturday, the Nebraska junior performed well, no doubt. He topped 100 yards three times and fell 2 yards short of triple digits in the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah enjoyed a career-best day on Saturday against Illinois.
A standout return specialist as a freshman and 1,137-yard rusher a year ago, Adbullah was producing plenty this fall. But none of it fell into the category of spectacular. Electric? More like deliberate and systematic.

That all changed on Saturday.

Abdullah torched Illinois for a career-high 225 yards on 20 carries in the Cornhuskers’ 39-19 win at Memorial Stadium. He ran for a pair of touchdowns, including a 43-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that featured a slick cutback in front of the Illini bench.

“Boy,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, “he played well.”

This comes a year after Abdullah, in place of injured I-back Rex Burkhead, made his mark in the Big Ten with four consecutive 100-yard rushing days.

“Last year a lot of his yards were tough yards, particularly in the Big Ten,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said.

Many Big Ten teams widen the alignment of their defensive ends against the Huskers to keep Abdullah from trying to bounce outside, where he’s considered most dangerous. He hurt the Illini on Saturday inside and out.

“More so the O-line than me,” Abdullah said. “They were all in sync. And the receivers don’t get as much credit as they should for blocking on the perimeter.”

He continued with the deflection of praise, complimenting Nebraska’s fullbacks.

Before the long run on the opening possession of the second half, Abdullah hobbled off the field. He showed no effects of the ding, though, upon his return as he took the football from quarterback Tommy Armstrong and followed his blocks to the right. When he ran out of room, Abdullah cut back to the middle of the field.

He ran about 75 yards to gain 43.

“Really, the guys were just busting their butts and getting downfield for me,” Abdullah said.

Brown said he noticed nothing before Saturday that made him believe his top back had lost a step from last year. Abdullah started September with consecutive 114-yard games against Wyoming and Southern Miss. He gained 139 against South Dakota State.

“He’s been pretty good across the board,” Brown said.

Make no mistake, Abdullah was better in the Big Ten opener. His 30-yard run on the opening possession revealed Nebraska’s plan of attack -- a heavy dose of the Husker ground game.

Maybe part of it was the weather. The temperature hovered near 45 degrees for most of the game, with a cold wind howling out of the southwest -- a great day to run the football, even for a guy from Homewood, Ala.

Abdullah continued to gain big chunks of yardage deep in the second half, going over 200 yards with a 22-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Credit the line and the receivers and, as Brown mentioned, the quarterback play of Armstrong and Beck’s play-calling. But Adbullah deserves some of the recognition, too.

“That’s a huge day,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “Good for him. He works hard enough that he deserves every good thing he’s got coming his way.”

The production on Saturday moved Abdullah to sixth nationally in rushing yards. He’s gained 690 this year -- an average of 136 yards per game. His 11 yards per carry on Saturday pushed Abdullah to 19th nationally in that category, and his 130 receiving yards rank No. 19 among running backs.

If Saturday served as an indication of what’s to come in the Big Ten, you can forget any talk about a sluggish Adbullah. The electricity is back in Nebraska’s backfield.

Week 6 helmet stickers

October, 6, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Top performers from Nebraska's 39-19 victory on Saturday over Illinois to open Big Ten play:

IB Ameer Abdullah: The offensive star of Saturday for Nebraska. Sure, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is captivating the fans with his poise, but Adbullah was the workhorse on a great afternoon for running the football. The junior gained a career-best 225 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns. He set the tone with a 30-yard scamper on the opening drive, and his 43-yard cutback for a TD in the third quarter goes directly into the highlight file.

CB Ciante Evans: The Huskers' most heralded defender before the season, the senior co-captain produced three huge plays at key moments. First, he stripped running back Donovonn Young after a 21-yard gain to the Nebraska 31-yard line in the opening quarter. LeRoy Alexander recovered for Nebraska. Evans sacked Nathan Scheelhaase on third and goal later in the first half to force a field goal. The returning All Big Ten defender later forced an interception with a quarterback hurry.

DE Jason Ankrah: The senior started 22 games over the past three seasons before Saturday but never enjoyed a game like this -- with a sack, another tackle for loss and an interception forced by the corner blitz of Evans. Ankrah made just those two tackles, but he was part of an invigorated Nebraska pass rush that harassed Scheelhaase early and often. Ankrah's sack, the fourth of his career, helped kill a promising drive in the first quarter after the Huskers built a 14-0 lead.

Get ready for QB drama in Lincoln

October, 5, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- An uncomfortable situation is brewing at quarterback for Nebraska.

Right now, it’s all roses. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. started and starred in his second straight game on Saturday, a 39-19 Cornhusker victory over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Record-setting senior Taylor Martinez remains out with turf toe, but his return is looming.

Maybe it’s next Saturday at Purdue. If not, he ought to be ready for Nebraska’s Oct. 26 trip to Minnesota.

And then what?

“Taylor’s earned it over a long period of time [so] when he’s ready to go,” coach Bo Pelini said Saturday, “he’ll be the starting quarterback.”

Sounds simple. But it never is.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. is putting on a show while Taylor Martinez recovers from an injury.
What happens when the offense sputters against Northwestern on Nov. 2, or more likely against Michigan State on Nov. 16? You know what will happen.

A groundswell of support for Armstrong has already begun to form. So far, there’s no decision for the coaches to make. At least, not a real decision.

Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck insist that Martinez, who was clearly bothered by the injury to his left foot through portions of September, must return to 100-percent health before he gets back on the field. Interestingly, that’s never been the standard previously with Martinez, a tough guy who has played through injuries for the better part of his three-plus years as the Nebraska starter.

Asked last week to pinpoint Martinez’s proximity to 100-percent health in the Huskers’ 20-point loss to UCLA on Sept. 21, Beck couldn’t do it.

This is not Braxton Miller, returning on a white horse to reclaim his spot. Despite his statistical genius, Martinez is rough around the edges. He has not led the Huskers to a conference championship. A faction of Nebraska fans question whether he could do it this year.

To compound matters, Armstrong has been pretty darn spectacular. He took to the Big Ten on Saturday like it was no big deal, completing 8 of 13 throws for 135 yards and two touchdowns. In two starts, he’s 20 of 28 for 304 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. His Total QBR index is 94.8, a figure that ranked second nationally this season through the early set of games on Saturday.

“He just went out there and did his job and did it well,” said receiver Quincy Enunwa, who caught a first-quarter TD from Armstrong.

The kid is enjoying it, no doubt. He said with a smile that people around Lincoln have started to recognize him. He chooses mainly, though, to stay at home with roommates Jordan Westerkamp and Imani Cross.

Armstrong’s voice drops a bit as he talks about the inevitable, that Martinez is going to retake the position.

“He’s the guy for this offense,” Armstrong said of Martinez. “I’m going to be patient. If it’s next week, if it’s in two weeks, three weeks, I’m just going to prepare myself the right way.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s going to be my time. My number’s going to be called every game next year. I’m just preparing the right way.”

Armstrong threw off his back foot in the first half as he tried to navigate balls through a 25 mph wind. The offense got sloppy in the second half. He misfired a few throws, including on the spectacular, one-handed, leaping grab by Kenny Bell that went for a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

“I told him thanks for saving my butt,” Armstrong said.

Mostly, Tommy just clicks.

He and receivers Bell and Enunwa have developed a nice chemistry. Same with I-back Ameer Abdullah, who ran for a career-best 225 yards against the Illini. The O-line, too, has appeared to mesh with the freshman QB.

As for the fans, well, know this: Armstrong is a savant when it comes to running the option. He froze a defender in the second half Saturday with a pitch fake 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, harkening memories of Tommie Frazier.

There’s no path more immediate into the hearts of Husker fans than by running a smooth option play.

Yes, the time is coming, like two trains on a collision path under the night-time sky.

It’s going to get uncomfortable.
Bo Pelini doesn’t remember the day. Only the message.

It was last Thursday or Friday, with several of his position coaches on the road to recruit as Nebraska progressed through a bye week. Pelini, the head coach of six years and a former defensive coordinator, met with his linebackers and defensive backs to review practice from the previous day.

They talked long and hard about the mistakes, much of it the same stuff that has plagued the Huskers through four games to the tune of 25 first downs allowed per outing, 463 yards and a field goal short of 30 points.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNebraska, which has struggled in the secondary, will have to stop experience Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase if the Huskers expect to beat the Illini.
Then on Sunday as the 3-1 Huskers, who host 3-1 Illinois on Saturday (noon ET, ESPNU), returned to practice, Pelini said he watched in amazement as some of those identical mistakes resurfaced.

“The exact same things we talked about,” Pelini said. “It came back to eye discipline. It came back to reading your keys. It came back to your focus. It’s why you have to keep putting them through it.

“That’s why every single day and every single rep are important.”

His point? There’s no replacement for experience.

The Nebraska defenders don’t have much of it. Their opponent on Saturday is led by a quarterback with a career full of experience -- good, bad and downright miserable.

Senior Nathan Scheelhaase, the fourth-year Fighting Illini starter, owns an edge in the Big Ten opener for both teams over the Nebraska defense in a category that remains out of the Huskers’ control.

Only time can close the experience gap for Pelini’s youthful defenders. And time, it seems, is running thin for the Blackshirts, with three October games to grow up before a difficult November stretch arrives.

For now, it’s about surviving Scheelhaase, the one-time Husker recruiting prospect out of Kansas City, Mo., who has enjoyed a rebirth this season in operating the Illinois offense.

Scheelhaase versus the Nebraska defense: the matchup appears one-sided in favor Illinois. How it unfolds on Saturday will loom large in the Illini’s upset bid against a Nebraska team that looks vulnerable, in large part, because of its leaky pass defense.
The Huskers have surrendered 284.3 yards per game through the air to rank 105th nationally out of 123 FBS teams. Nebraska ranks 85th in allowing opponents to complete 63 percent of their throws, and Husker foes Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA and South Dakota State have averaged 8.42 yards per pass attempt to rank 106th.

“I’m a realist,” Pelini said, “and I knew what we were going to be facing and what we were going to continue to face as the season goes on. I expect us to get better.”

Meanwhile, Scheelhaase averages 9.52 yards per pass attempt to rank 13th nationally. He leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yardage, and his 12 touchdown passes rank second in the league to Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton.

It represents a significant reversal for Scheelhaase, who threw just four touchdown passes, with eight interceptions, a year ago in 10 games as Illinois lost its final eight games under first-year coach Tim Beckman.

New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has helped the QB raise his completion percentage to a career-best 67.2.

In addition to the struggles of 2012, Scheelhaase endured the Illini collapse in 2011, when it started 6-0 but lost six straight to end the regular season, costing coach Ron Zook his job.

Predictably, all of it helped shape the Scheelhaase of today.

“I’ve grown a lot from the good times and the tough times,” he said. “I’ve learned to seize the moment when it’s there. And when you’re playing with a bunch of guys who’ve been through the experience of ups and downs, it really pulls you close together.”

His words offer promise for the Nebraska defense, though not necessarily in the short term.

This is still the group that was gouged for 465 yards, including 227 on the ground, last time out on Sept. 21 by FCS-level SDSU in a 59-20 Husker victory.

Defensive end Randy Gregory, a bright spot amid the lows for the Nebraska defense, said he expects to see a different unit on the field against Illinois than the group that couldn’t stop South Dakota State in the first quarter two weeks ago.

“I hope it’s changed a lot,” Gregory said. “There’s a lot of things we need to focus on and fix. I expect that we’ll have done that.”

For Scheelhaase, moving past Illinois’ offensive failures involved a clean wipe of the slate. The Illini scored more than 20 points just once in Big Ten play last year -- and that came in a 30-point loss to Ohio State.

“Everybody’s put the past in the past,” he said. “It’s behind us. The vibe this year is that we can do a lot more than what people expected us to do. We don’t have to worry about what’s happening on the outside, what people are thinking about us.

“We just have to worry about having great days at practice and playing with confidence on Saturday.”

To avoid a 15th consecutive Big Ten loss, Illinois must beat a team that Scheelhaase has long admired. He was initially offered a scholarship by former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan in 2007. Scheelhaase visited Memorial Stadium for the USC game that year and again for Pelini’s first spring game seven months later.

“It was an honor to get a chance to be recruited by them,” Scheelhaase said.

He said he’s looked forward to Saturday since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.

“I knew what an exciting experience this would be, not only for me but for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys all week to take in the moment -- take in what’s it all about that.”

Spoken like a man of experience.

Bye week to-do list: Nebraska

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
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The bye week for Nebraska comes at an opportune time, allowing the Huskers to assess problem areas after a roller-coaster ride of a non-conference season. Additionally, the extra week benefits quarterback Taylor Martinez, who missed his first start last week because of a turf-toe injury after a streak of 32 in a row.

As the Huskers (3-1) turn their attention to Illinois and the Big Ten opener on Oct. 5, here’s a look at the internal areas on which they’re likely to focus.

[+] EnlargeShaquelle Evans
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOnly winless New Mexico State has allowed more plays of 10 yards or more than Nebraska.
1. Identify the leaders: Interesting that in the year coach Bo Pelini assigned captains months ahead of schedule and distributed Blackshirt practice jerseys before the season opener for the first time in his six seasons, the Huskers enter Big Ten play without a clearly defined core of leaders. Yes, offensive guard Spencer Long, receiver Quincy Enunwa, Martinez and cornerback Ciante Evans have all done a nice job in their own ways, but look what has happened when adversity struck. Against UCLA, no one stepped up. Against Wyoming, the clock may have saved the Huskers. Against South Dakota State, youngsters like David Santos and Randy Gregory on defense made big plays. Ameer Abdullah has the personality of a leader, but he’s still working to cut his fumbles. Look for the usual suspects to take on a bigger leadership role over the next eight games but also for some of the youngsters to assert themselves.

2. Determine a cause of the defensive woes: The poor play of Nebraska’s young defense has hindered the overall progress of the team. It impacts everything. When the defense can’t get off the field, the offensive players feel the negative energy. It permeated the stadium on Sept. 14, aiding the Bruins’ 38 unanswered points after Nebraska took a 21-3 lead. Defensively, the stats look bad. The Huskers are 106th in total yardage allowed and 109th in yards allowed per play. Only winless New Mexico State has allowed more plays of 10 yards or more than the Huskers’ 79. More than that, the defensive mindset is lacking. Pelini noticed it against UCLA and South Dakota State. Nebraska’s defense lacks a killer instinct. It leads to tentative play and missed assignments. The coach said this week he thinks his players are embarrassed. Best way to cure that is to play better.

3. Clean up the special teams, penalties and turnovers: It has been better this year, but problems still exist. Nebraska has fumbled 11 times; only Auburn, Florida and Idaho have dropped the football more often. Nebraska ranks 119th nationally in yards per opponent punt at 46.1. Some of that is a result of unlucky bounces, but the Huskers – notably Jamal Turner -- have shown a tendency to pick the wrong moments to act aggressively and passively. It has cost the Huskers field position and cost Turner his role as the top return man. On the bright side, Nebraska ranks 16th in turnover margin. Penalties continue to be a problem as the Huskers’ 28 rank as more than all but 19 teams nationally.

Nebraska at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
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Nebraska survived a season opener in which it surrendered more than 600 yards to Wyoming, setting the tone for an unpredictable September. Since then, the Huskers endured a second-half beatdown against UCLA, a headline-grabbing controversy around coach Bo Pelini and a first-quarter embarrassment against FCS-level South Dakota State. Just another 3-1 start in Lincoln.

Here's a look back at the nonconference season:

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini's team has been inconsistent and his comments became an issue.
Best game: The Huskers have yet to play a complete game -- far from it. Their most dominant performance came on Sept. 7 against Southern Miss, a 56-13 win. Yes, the Golden Eagles have now lost 15 straight games, but this trip to Memorial Stadium marked their largest margin of defeat during the streak. Nebraska started strong and finished Southern Miss with four interceptions, including pick-six grabs by cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and I-back Ameer Abdullah were solid. The defense allowed fewer than 300 yards. Really, though, this game was memorable for Nebraska because it lacked the drama present around every other turn.

Best player: With apologies to offensive guard Spencer Long, Jean-Baptiste and defensive end Randy Gregory, Quincy Enunwa gets the nod. The senior co-captain has played like a grown man at wide receiver. He’s the least flashy of a top group at his position that includes Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner, but Enunwa does everything well -- and with devastating force. He’s caught five touchdown passes. One more and he’ll triple his career total from before the season. More than that, he blocks on the perimeter like a tight end, and he’s developed a knack to provide the drive-extending reception.

Best performance: Give it to redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong for his show-stopping display last week in his first career start. In place of the injured Martinez, Armstrong calmly led four touchdown drives on five possessions as Nebraska rolled up 300 yards passing and rushing for the first time in school history. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 169 touchdowns. He threw with precision on short and deep routes. He ran well. He made good decisions. Most notably, he brought a presence to the position that offers a promise for the future. For now, Armstrong heads back to the bench behind Martinez. His time will come, though.

Best surprise: Jean-Baptiste was playing receiver two years ago. He moved to defense in time to snag a key interception in the Huskers’ 2011 comeback win over Ohio State. The senior from Miami started five games last year, but it wasn’t until this fall that he realized the potential wrapped into his 6-foot-3, 220-pound body. So far this season, he’s intercepted a pass in every game. Jean-Baptiste has shown excellent anticipation, jumping routes and reading quarterbacks. He’s aggressive, playing with confidence and building a resume likely to bolster his NFL prospects.

Biggest disappointment: Nebraska has fumbled 11 times, more than all but three teams nationally. It’s a big concern after the offseason focus on ball security. But even that pales in comparison to the disappointment that is the defense. The Blackshirts rank 106th nationally in total defense, 109th in yards allowed per play and 119th in opponent plays of 10 yards or longer. The Huskers’ youth explains some of the trouble, but they’re also struggling to find consistent effort and energy. This defense lacks the attitude that mark classic Pelini-directed units.

Defensive woes loom large at Nebraska

September, 23, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Amid four quarters on Saturday filled with defensive sequences that exasperated Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach had no trouble identifying one spot, moments after the Huskers’ 59-20 victory over South Dakota State, that captured the essence of the Blackshirts' trouble at the end of a scary September.

The Jackrabbits scored two touchdowns on nine plays, covering 176 yards in less than three minutes to open the game -- often running straight at Nebraska.

But that’s not what Pelini referenced. He’s talking about the next possession, when the Huskers stacked the box with eight defenders, and still South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner churned for 15 yards on the first play, followed by gains of 4 and 5 up the middle.

“There is zero,” Pelini said, “zero excuse for that.”

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini wasn't happy with Nebraska's defense against South Dakota State.
The Nebraska defense has problems. Four games into this season, troubling trends that emerged late last season have turned into a cold reality.

Replacing seven senior starters from a year ago, the Huskers knew they would face growing pains this fall. Some of what we’ve seen this month, though, is rooted more deeply than in Nebraska’s lack of experience.

“Every week with this group, right now, feels like it’s a new adventure,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “whether it’s from quarter to quarter or half to half or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good, and then there are times where it’s hard to watch.

“I don’t know how to say it other than that.”

He could say it like this: The Huskers have two weeks to prepare for Illinois and the start of Big Ten play. And based on the results of late – FCS-level South Dakota State scored just three points after the first quarter on Saturday but still totaled 465 yards – Nebraska coaches and players must decipher the cause of their defensive woes and fix them fast.

Statistics here tell just part of the story. But an important part.

In the first 12 games of last season, Nebraska ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed per game (152.2), first in opponent completion percentage (45.5), second in yards per opponent passing attempt (5.16), 13th in yards per opponent play (4.59) and 23rd in points per opponent drive (1.44).

In six games since, in the same categories, Nebraska is 105th (277.5 passing yards per game), 82nd (62.4 percent completion rate), 116th (9.35 yards per opponent passing attempt), 118th (7.45 yards per opponent play) and 105th (2.58 points per opponent drive).

Something is wrong. Pelini said it’s a missing attitude.

Pelini discussed it Saturday with former Huskers tight end and current associate athletic director Jamie Williams before the coach roasted the defense in his postgame news conference.

“You’ve got to have a killer instinct,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. “In football, no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to earn it. If you don’t have that kind of approach, it’s not going to work out well for you.

“Right now, we’re not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up.”

The Huskers have endured struggles at all three levels.

Newcomer Randy Gregory at defensive end is a bright spot. Freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine have played well on the line, but veterans Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle aren’t showing up.

True freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas were benched for Zaire Anderson and David Santos in the first half on Saturday. Anderson appeared to play well, but missed assignments continued to plague the unit.

In the secondary, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with interceptions in every game this year, is a star in the making. The safeties are a different story, especially at the spot next to Corey Cooper.

“They’re playing too tentative,” Pelini said.

The Huskers lack aggression, in general, on defense. Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski talk regularly to the linemen about exploding at the snap, initiating contact with the players across the line of scrimmage.

“I wasn’t doing that the first series,” Gregory said. “The defensive line as a whole, we weren’t doing that.”

Gregory doesn’t know how to make the fixes or even what to say to his teammates.

“I don’t think anybody knows what to say,” he said, “but we’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re going to stop them.”

Others sounded more confused. A couple defenders said they thought the Huskers played well defensively on Saturday. Meanwhile, Pelini described it as “the worst defensive performance of the season.”

He issued a promise, too.

“I’ll get this fixed,” the coach said. “Trust me there.”

Interesting choice of words. Trust, it seems, is wearing thin among the Nebraska defense these days.

Nebraska helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The top performances in Nebraska's 59-20 win over South Dakota State on Saturday:

Quincy Enunwa: As Kenny Bell endured an off night, Enunwa rose to the occasion, helping acclimate freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. with a pair of big third-down receptions in the first half. More than that, Enunwa was a beast against the overmatched Jackrabbits; his bruising style is almost unfair against an FCS foe. The co-captain caught six passes to match a career high for 78 yards. Enunwa has caught a pass in 18 straight games, and his 81 career receptions moved him within one spot of the career top 10 at Nebraska.

Randy Gregory: His teammates can call him the “sack-less wonder” no more as Gregory final got to the quarterback, albeit a sack shared with fellow defensive end Avery Moss. Gregory made his impact felt even more in pass coverage. That’s right, he dropped into coverage on a play some of the Nebraska coaches predicted would earn him an interception. On Thursday in practice, he dropped the ball. Not Saturday. The long and lean Gregory snagged an Austin Sumner throw and took it 33 yards for a touchdown.

Ron Kellogg III: The fifth-year senior and former walk-on is the glue of Nebraska’s quarterback triumvirate. Never was his role more important than Saturday, what with Kellogg’s buddy and 43-game starter on the bench with turf toe. Kellogg, the top backup since early in preseason camp, said he understood the decision to start Armstrong, the heir apparent. Both backups played well, with Kellogg completing 8 of 9 throws for 136 yards and a touchdown. His guidance, no doubt, helped Armstrong, and he’s also an aid to Martinez as the starter deals with his injury.

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