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September 13, 2008

It's so easy to forget what's important when you're caught up in doing what's urgent, but ideally, you can accomplish both. Nebraska was able to do that as it hammered out a 38-7 win over New Mexico State Saturday night.

NU urgently needed to win the first three home games of the season against mediocre competition as it recovers from its second losing season in four years and retools under a new head coach. It needed those wins on the ledger before embarking on a daunting portion of the schedule, with home games against Virginia Tech and Missouri followed by a road trip to Texas Tech. Go ahead and check that urgent need off the list.

More importantly, Nebraska needs to regain its identity. On this night, the Cornhuskers looked determined to rebuild their identity as a physical football team. They made a good start against the Aggies, rushing for 330 yards on offense and getting a disruptive performance from its front four on the defensive side of the ball.

The most encouraging aspect of the night was that the offensive line is starting to reassert itself. It shrugged off a lot of criticism in the past week and appears to be starting to come together as a unit. Senior Lydon Murtha returned at right tackle and seemed to bring some stability to the line, which was a hopeful sign. Gone were most of the nagging penalties from the previous week.

Joe Ganz became the first Husker quarterback since Eric Crouch to account for touchdowns by rushing, passing and receiving in a single game. Ganz completed 12 of 17 passes, committed no turnovers and played a solid three quarters before giving way to his backups, Patrick Witt and Zach Lee.

It was good to see that Bo Pelini will make it a point to get game experience for his backup quarterbacks, and for his second-team defense. It may have cost Nebraska on the final stat sheet (the Huskers would have had a shutout had it not been for Witt's fumbled snap), but those decisions will pay off down the line.

With three ball carriers gaining at least 60 yards (Marlon Lucky had 105, Quentin Castille 75 and Ganz 69), the Huskers show signs of developing a balanced running attack that should be very valuable down the line. Sure, they did it against an outmanned team from the Western Athletic Conference. It will be much tougher to do it the next three weeks, but the potential is there.

My gut feeling is that Nebraska may struggle to get a stalemate at the line of scrimmage over its next three games, but it will hold together, keep plugging away, gain momentum and become more physically dominant against every other opponent except Oklahoma. We'll see how that theory plays out.

Ty Steinkuhler, Ndamukong Suh and Zach Potter spent a lot of time in the Aggie backfield and overall, the defense continued to play with passion. They did their part to get the Husker crowd riled up.

It was good to see Lucky and Castille running with authority. Roy Helu and Marcus Mendoza also had their good moments. We saw a lot of the I formation, and Castille ran the ball as a fullback out of the I. The Huskers had 44 running plays and had 31 minutes of possession time; both are steps in the right direction.

Nebraska can use the upcoming bye week to get healthy and sharpen its execution. Defensive end Barry Turner is gone for the year and his replacement, Pierre Allen, left the game Saturday night with a first-half injury, but Allen appeared to be healthy enough riding the exercise bike on the sidelines. Ricky Thenarse should be ready to return to the secondary for Virginia Tech and guard Andy Christensen may be ready for some snaps after being acquitted of sexual assault charges and returning to practice.

Ganz can throw the ball when he needs to, but the key to the Huskers' success this season will be their ability to control the clock against teams that have excellent talent at the so-called skill positions.

Since the day he was hired, Pelini has said the Huskers need to become more physical. There's no way the Huskers can stay with teams like Missouri and Texas Tech for four quarters if they're not. Saturday night, Pelini and the Huskers started walking the talk.

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