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September 6, 2008

Did anyone else think about Southern Mississippi while Nebraska was bumbling and struggling in the second half Saturday against San Jose State?

Near the end of the third quarter of their second game of the Bill Callahan era, the 2004 Nebraska Cornhuskers held a perilous lead over Southern Miss. Then the Golden Eagles picked Joe Dailey and returned it for a touchdown, and went on to give Callahan his first loss at Lincoln.

Joe Ganz and the Husker offense were having similar problems against a lightly regarded but stubborn bunch of Spartans from the Western Athletic Conference. But this time, NU held together until sophomore Niles Paul delivered the big play.

Paul's 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter changed a 14-12 lead to 21-12, and Nebraska went on to survive an ugly day, eventually pulling away to win 35-12 despite losing the battle in several statistical categories, including total offense.

This one was excruciating to watch at times, and it provides plenty of things for the Husker Nation to worry about. A terse Bo Pelini stated the obvious in his postgame press conference — Nebraska football has a lot to work on. When you have fewer rushing yards (99) than penalty yards (103), it makes you wonder just how physical this football team is going to become, at least on offense.

The offensive line is a major disappointment so far this year. This is the unit that was supposed to be the strength of the team. So far, it has been a weakness, with fewer than 250 rushing yards to show for its efforts in the first two games. The Huskers are a long way from developing a ball-control offense.

Senior tackle Lydon Murtha has missed both games, but that doesn't make much difference anyway. Murtha, who came out of Minnesota as a highly touted recruit, has been a disappointment for much of his career. The Huskers have enough depth to overcome his loss.

But on Saturday, a series of irritating penalties and a lack of coordination in the O-line made the running game a nasty mess. And this time, hampered by poor protection at times, Ganz could barely reach the 200-yard plateau in passing yards. He threw a pair of interceptions, and had no touchdowns through the air.

Nebraska hasn't made much progress yet toward the goal set by Pelini and offensive line coach Barney Cotton. This team was going to learn to punch opponents in the mouth. It was going to be able to run the football. Let's hope it learns quickly, because it will need a dependable running game very soon when it plays Virginia Tech, Missouri and Texas Tech on three consecutive weekends.

Pelini made one thing clear — his team didn't come out flat. The Huskers didn't mail this one in. Mental mistakes, yes. Lack of effort, no.

And they held together in the clutch. They didn't fold up against a team they should have defeated, as the Huskers did against Southern Miss in 2004. They finished strong, outyarding San Jose State 132-48 in the fourth quarter despite giving up a 55-yard pass play. Better yet, the kicking game was solid all game long.

The defense was good when it had to be, shutting down the Spartans twice in the red zone, getting two interceptions and returning one of them for a touchdown.

All that being said, if Paul fumbles the kickoff instead of returning it for his first career touchdown as a Husker, Nebraska quite likely would have lost the game.

It remains to be seen whether San Jose State is as good as the Southern Mississippi team of 2004, which finished with a 7-5 record. If not, the Huskers could be in for a tough year. Then again, the Huskers could improve a lot over the next two weeks.

Take a look around. Texas A&M has lost to Arkansas State, and Colorado trailed Eastern Washington in the fourth quarter. Ohio State almost lost to Frank Solich's scrappy Ohio Bobcats. Michigan barely survived Miami of Ohio Saturday. It doesn't feel quite so bad now being 2-0, does it? But rough waters are ahead.

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 [email protected]. | Archive