Stryker: Huskers enjoy family fun day, starters rest in Bethune-Cookman rout
Nebraska players and coaches have kept their heads up after finding some brutally unexpected ways to lose games over the season’s first half. So after a baptism by fire, a little R&R and comfort food may not be a bad idea. That’s just what Nebraska’s football team and fan base got on a beautiful October afternoon.
A picnic-atmosphere 45-9 win over Bethune-Cookman replaced the lightning-canceled Sept. 1 Akron season opener on the schedule. If that seems like months ago, that’s a good sign, because the Cornhuskers are changing everything about their program, from their offensive pace to their mental outlook.
Giving up a bye week turned out to be worth it, because this game delivered pretty much everything the Huskers and their fans hoped for: a fast start, some efficient scoring drives, two pretty touchdown passes from Adrian Martinez to Stanley Morgan Jr., relatively few penalties, a positive number in turnover margin, a defense that held the opponent to single-digit scoring and most importantly, no serious injuries.
Mick Stoltenberg returned from a knee injury and a bunch of new names made their first appearance. It was one of those days when you have to scrutinize your game program for unfamiliar names and numbers. It feels like a long time since I’ve done that.
The win didn’t prove anything beyond improving NU’s record to 2-6, but it provided lots of playing time for backups for the first time in more than three years. I can’t recall such a relaxed vibe in the third quarter of a Nebraska game since the 48-9 win over South Alabama in 2015. Heck, even the wave made a reappearance in Memorial Stadium. You had Peyton Newell razzing Morgan about who has better hands after the senior defensive lineman made an over-the-shoulder interception of a tipped pass.
Most importantly, the Husker special teams cleaned up their act, shutting down the Wildcats’ respectable return game. Isaac Armstrong continued to impress as punter, and he unleashed a career-long 73-yarder to help the Huskers establish a season-high 57.3 net yards per punt. J.D. Spielman returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown, the Huskers’ first one since freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El ran one back 80 yards at Iowa in Bo Pelini’s last game as Nebraska head coach.
Seeing the defense keep things under control was encouraging, even against an FCS team, but the Blackshirts were not dominant. They bent plenty, allowing 18 first downs as Bethune-Cookman converted seven of 16 third-down opportunities. The Wildcats had 355 total yards, although 82 came on their last drive of the game.
At least there were no McNeese State flashbacks. Ameer Abdullah didn’t need to save the day this time. Instead, the first-team offense watched the entire second half from the sidelines as Noah Vedral and the second unit tried to work out the rust. Their performance was not memorable, but at least the repetitions could prove to be valuable in 2019. Miles Jones, Javeon McQuitty, Katerian Legrone, Matt Sichterman, Trent Hixson, Hunter Miller and John Rairdon got long looks on offense, while on defense, Guy Thomas, Chris Walker and Fyn Anderson got their first significant Husker game experience. Noticeably absent was outside linebacker Breon Dixon. It’s a strong indication Erik Chinander plans on playing Dixon in the next four games.
A large plurality of fans in my pregame survey said they were anxious to see Vedral, the Bishop Neumann graduate who played his freshman year for Frost at UCF and followed him to Nebraska. It was an up-and-down day for Vedral, who is scheduled to play no more than four games this season to preserve a redshirt year. He scored Nebraska’s only second-half touchdown on a 20-yard run, but completed only two of nine passes and threw an interception.
Seven Huskers carried the ball and seven caught passes. Jones was the only one who had a rush and a pass reception. Linebacker Matt Jarzynka from Loup City had one of Nebraska’s four sacks. It was a well-deserved feel-good moment for a fifth-year who has hung in there through trials, tribulations and three different coaching staffs.
It was a relaxed afternoon for Martinez, who in his seventh game, surpassed Taylor Martinez for NU’s freshman record for most passing yards in a season. He completed two passes to tight ends as he went 15-for-22 for 213 yards with an interception in one half of work.
Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington had a sharp but short afternoon, and the offensive line gained momentum for the Huskers, who had more rushing yards after seven games this season than they did for all of the 2017 season. The o-line is better, but we’ll know a lot more after next week’s game in the Horseshoe.
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