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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
November 14, 2009

 
Raise your hand if you thought you’d see the Nebraska offensive line bail out Ndamukong Suh and the Cornhusker defensive front at Lawrence, Kansas.

Just as I thought … silent as a Saturday night in St. Libory out there.

I’m with you; it blindsided me, too. It’s too early to say the Husker o-line came of age, but it at least took a big step forward Saturday as Nebraska rushed for 214 yards, almost half of them coming in the fourth quarter, and beat Kansas 31-17 on Senior Day in Lawrence.

Score one for Shawn Watson and Barney Cotton today. Score two for Jacob Hickman, Mike Caputo, Keith Williams, Mike Smith, Ricky Henry and Marcel Jones, who gave a big lift to a Husker defensive front that Bo Pelini said looked leg-weary and tackled poorly.

The KU defense is nothing special, but neither has been the Nebraska offense, and a performance like this gives everyone on that side of the ball a big injection of confidence. A performance like this gives the offense a sense that it’s part of the band, not just the background singers.

The Big 12 North is hanging in the balance, and Nebraska (7-3 overall, 4-2 Big 12) looks like a team that’s interested in claiming the prize. NU’s road win sets up a divisional winner-take-all game against puzzling but dangerous Kansas State (6-5, 4-3) next Saturday.

A healthy and focused Roy Helu Jr. is the major difference in Nebraska’s running game. He ran smart and ran tough in key situations, but he can’t do it by himself. The offensive line had its best day of the season, and started opening up some gashes in the Jayhawk defensive line late in the game. Helu had 82 of the Huskers’ 97 fourth-quarter rushing yards.

After four games where the offensive line looked nearly non-existent, it hammered out a 76-yard game-clinching touchdown drive, running the ball every snap, and freshman Dontrayevous Robinson had three productive carries for 10 yards in a clutch situation.

 
Helu was the key, but Zac Lee played the best game of his Husker career at quarterback. Lee completed 13 of 21 passes for 196 yards, and had a nice game running the ball (nine carries for 53 yards), but his biggest accomplishment was leading Nebraska from behind when KU grabbed the momentum with an 89-yard touchdown drive and took a 17-16 lead with 7:34 left in the game. Helu and Lee stepped forward and look like they want to be considered leaders of the Cornhusker offense.

Niles Paul had probably his best game as a Husker as well. He had four receptions for 154 yards, plus a two-point conversion, and had 44-yard kickoff return right after KU took the lead to grab back the momentum.

The point is, several players Pelini and Watson have been counting on to be leaders on this offense finally showed up.

NU was even able to overcome a potentially crushing penalty when Williams tripped a KU defensive lineman in the red zone, turning a probable touchdown drive into a field goal that gave NU a 13-10 lead.

Five yards per rush, no turnovers, and five penalties for 55 yards. It’s not perfect — not even close, but not a bad day’s work for this bunch.

“It was a great win on the road,” said Pelini. “I give Kansas a lot of credit, they came out and played hard; they played their tails off. We found ourselves down one with about seven minutes to go. We won the football game; we did what we needed to do in the fourth quarter. I was proud of the team, I’m proud of the way they hung together and finished the game.”

When you step back and realize that not only did Nebraska gave KU its fifth consecutive loss and put the Jayhawks (5-5) in serious peril of missing a bowl game, but the Big Red have won four consecutive conference road games for the first time in 10 years, this season starts to take on a bit more significance.

When you realize that the Blackshirts — who allowed 335 yards to a KU team that has been explosive over the past couple of seasons — can have a mediocre game and Nebraska still wins on the road, this season starts to take on a bit more hope.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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