Stryker: A long day’s flight into rejuvenation for Big Red
A long flight to an unfamiliar venue did wonders for a Cornhusker football team trying to find its way.
It’s amazing how depression disperses and demons disappear when you go out and smack another team in the mouth. And keep doing it again and again.
It’s stunning how a 54-7 road win can change a team’s attitude, even if it comes against a team rapidly sinking to the bottom of the conference. A long-forgotten type of dominating performance by the Big Red seems to be just what the doctor ordered to bring some healing to a moribund program that for the last few years, has been finding ways to botch it up against teams it should have handled.
For a Husker fan base battling discouragement rapidly trending toward cynicism, watching the Big Red get their first November road win in four years was something positive to chew on for at least six days.
This was the first time since 2014 that Nebraska has looked sound in all three phases of the game for a full four quarters — since the night Ameer Abdullah ran wild in a 41-31 win over Miami in Lincoln. Can the Huskers come close to that consistency against any rated team, let alone their rivals to the east? Is it possible to just “let it rip” now? Are they ready to leave all fear of failure behind? Those are big questions for coach Scott Frost, who was brought back to Lincoln to stop The Slide.
One blowout victory cannot clean five years’ worth of sludge out of anyone’s system, but it can at least inject some confidence into a team that absolutely must view the upcoming Black Friday bash against Iowa as a four-quarter brawl needed to restore some tarnished family honor, and to re-start a bowl game habit.
For a Cornhusker team battling injuries, illness, and frankly, a fair amount of bad luck, the trip to College Park, Maryland, turned out to be as rejuvenating as a week in a health spa.
The Huskers left Wan’Dale Robinson, Kanawai Noa and Barret Pickering at home with various ailments. Running back Dedrick Mills and slot receiver J.D. Spielman were sick much of the week, which and left many observers – probably including Frost and his staff – wondering who would provide big plays.
The antidote started with a solid outing by the Husker kicking game. Special teams coach Jovan DeWitt used a series of high, short kickoffs that produced a turnover in the short term and stymied the Terrapins’ potent kick return game all day long. It gained momentum with a resurgent performance by the defense, which held Maryland to nine first downs and 206 total offense yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run in the final minutes against the Husker second- and third-striingers. The embattled Blackshirts came that close to their first shutout since Ndamukong Suh walked the field.
Eric Chinander’s unit seemed determined to overcome any potential problems that a truncated passing game might cause. After the Huskers took the opening kickoff and sputtered at midfield, the defense got the first of three takeaways, starting with a stinging tackle by DiCaprio Bootle that forced a fumble caught in midair by Marquel Dismuke, who returned it 11 yards to the Maryland 13-yard line. The Huskers cashed it right away with a 6-yard TD run by Mills.
At that point, the latest in a parade of Husker walk-on kickers made his entrance. Matt Waldoch, a Geneva, Illinois, native who Frost added to the roster from the Husker club soccer team in September, kicked the first of his six extra points. Waldoch also booted three 29-yard field goals without a miss.
If a sterling start by the kicking game and defense didn’t indicate this was going to be Nebraska’s game, a touchdown pass from Adrian Martinez to Spielman that bounced off two sets of Maryland hands did. The Huskers were overdue for a few breaks.
Spielman, one of the most consistent Huskers over the past three seasons, continued his march toward the top of Nebraska’s pass receiving charts. He caught seven passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and became the first Husker to ever put together three seasons with 800 receiving yards.
We finally got a good, long look at Rahmir Johnson who was playing in front of a lot of family and friends less than 250 miles from his home in Oradell, New Jersey. Johnson never could break loose, despite a game-high 18 carries which produced 55 yards and a touchdown. He appears to be a potential change-of-pace back, smallish, but with excellent speed.
Luke McCaffrey is the most explosive freshman on the roster next to Robinson. Faced with a depleted wide receiver corps, Frost put McCaffrey at wideout on occasion, and the Colorado native made a nice shoetop catch of a 12-yard pass from Martinez. He also threw a pass off a reverse play before taking over at quarterback in the fourth quarter, completing three of five passes, running for 83 yards on 10 carries and scoring his first career rushing touchdown.
By halftime, with the Huskers up 34-0, with three takeaways, three sacks and a huge time-of-possession advantage already in the bag, Nebraska Sports Network play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe admitted, “I don’t quite know how to act right now.”
And seemingly, neither did the Husker defense, which got six sacks and half a dozen three-and-outs (a couple were four-and-outs), and was on track to hold a fairly plucky Maryland offense to about 3 yards per play until the Terps’ final snap.
It was one of those days that Cornhusker fans took over an enemy stadium, chanting “Go Big Red” to their hearts’ content despite a steady drizzle that fell for more than half the game. They’re always ready, and they seized the opportunity.
It was one of those games where Husker fans saw eerie messages through their television sets —messages like this late third-quarter graphic on the Fox Network broadcast: “Nebraska touchdowns, 5. Maryland first downs, 6.” Doggoned near the entire travel roster got into the game. Seven different players carried the ball and 10 Huskers caught passes. That makes for a fun plane ride home and more importantly, it saves some wear and tear on Husker starters for the quick turnaround before the Iowa game.
Nobody in Husker Nation has been fooled into thinking this team’s healing is complete. A 5-6 football team still has a long uphill climb before it finds itself, but when the patient’s frame of mind improves, his chances for long-term recovery are greatly enhanced.
Hmmmm … just how much more defense is left in that tank?
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org