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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 7, 2009

 
Ndamukong Suh deserved this one. Fellow seniors Matt O’Hanlon and Phillip Dillard deserved this one. The Nebraska defense deserved this one, and they delivered it — the biggest win in the short head coaching career of Bo Pelini.

The Cornhuskers’ 10-3 victory over a beat-up Oklahoma team on a perfectly beautiful November night in Memorial Stadium was a confirmation of two time-tested adages:

No. 1 is, if you can be strong on only one side of the ball, choose defense. And No. 2: turnovers usually are more important than total yardage. I seem to recall a certain game against Iowa State …

But let’s not go there right now. It’s time for the Huskers to celebrate a 41-point turnaround against the Sooners in a single season. NU has indeed made progress on closing the talent gap with OU, although there’s no doubt that the Huskers, like the rest of the Big 12, were helped by the absence of future NFL players Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham.

Meanwhile, it was an ugly game by the Husker offense, but not brutally ugly. The Huskers committed only one turnover and forced five. A plus-four turnover margin covers a multitude of sins — even 104 yards in penalties, being outgained 325-180, going 1-for-14 on third-down conversions and getting only seven first downs.

This win essentially nullifies the home-field loss to Iowa State two weeks ago. There are problems to be addressed, but Nebraska (6-3 overall, 3-2 Big 12) has a clean shot at the rest of the season. The Huskers have a heroic defense, an erratic offensive line, a re-emerging Roy Helu, a huge ongoing question mark at quarterback and their Big 12 North destiny in their own hands.

The next three games? They’re no easier to predict than they were a week ago. Nebraska has a good enough defense to win them all, but a questionable enough offense that the Huskers cannot be considered a clear favorite against either Kansas, Kansas State or Colorado at this point.

This is an offense that, for now at least, is only a minor supporting actor. Suh, Jared Crick and the entire defensive line are the heart of this Husker team. The defensive backfield is rapidly improving. Cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Prince Amukamura are physical and becoming confident enough to succeed in press coverage like the Husker cornerbacks of the 1990s.

And then there was O’Hanlon, who played the game of his life against the No. 20-rated Sooners. He had three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter, and had a career-high 12 tackles. With his hat trick of picks, O’Hanlon atoned for his much-publicized coverage bust in the final minute at Virginia Tech.

“This is one of the biggest wins of my career here and I probably can’t play much better,” the Bellevue East graduate said. “I was pretty down after the Virginia Tech game, and I just needed a breakout game to get my confidence back. I think that happened tonight.”

The Blackshirts continued a proud tradition of shutting down Oklahoma in the second half when the Sooners travel to Lincoln. Since OU won 17-7 in the so-called “Game of the Century II” in 1987, Nebraska has defeated OU seven out of eight times in Lincoln, while holding the Sooners scoreless in the second half of five of those games and allowing seven points in the second-half of two others.

Oklahoma moved the ball well at times in the second half this time out, but Suh and company got very tough in their own territory. First-year quarterback Landry Jones — playing because of Heisman Trophy winner Bradford’s season-ending shoulder injury — looked like a promising rookie, but was often baffled by NU’s coverages and harassed by the Husker front four. Nebraska broke up an astonishing 12 passes, and six different defensive backs got into the act. Suh had one of those PBUs, plus four tackles and a blocked field goal.

It was a sweet game for Dillard, the senior linebacker who is an Oklahoma native. Dillard, who did not play in the first two games of the season, is enjoying his own personal Renaissance. He helped shut down the Sooners with eight tackles and picked off a Jones pass in the fourth quarter. One of the best scenes of the night was Carl Pelini giving a huge hug to Dillard as he left the field after his interception.

Helu was almost the entire Nebraska offense, gaining 138 of the toughest yards he will ever get. Nebraska rushed the ball 43 times — 20 by Helu — and showed the commitment to the inside running game that it will need to show throughout the rest of the season, regardless of who is at quarterback. Helu seemed to be at or near top speed, and his health will be a major factor in how effective the Huskers will be on offense the rest of this season.

Helu had a 63-yard burst in the second quarter, and runs of 13 and 25 yards on the same drive in the fourth. That means he had 17 carries that netted only 37 yards. Thankfully, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson had the patience to stick with the running game for much of the night. That was the small glow of optimism in this Husker offensive performance, and hopefully the offensive line can build off of that against a much softer defense at Kansas next week. Nebraska needs to consistently use its inside running game out of the I formation, which was by far its most successful strategy against OU.

Lee really wasn’t any more effective at quarterback than Green, who started but left the game in the second quarter. It appeared that Pelini and Watson acknowledged that the defense was their best hope of winning (and the defense all but scored the game’s only touchdown when Amukamara returned an interception to the OU 1-yard line), so they put the game in the hands of the Blackshirts and simply asked Lee to avoid mistakes. For the most part, Lee did that (the fumbled option pitch was more Helu’s fault than Lee’s in my view). But I question why Watson is so prone to call option plays with Lee, who has proven himself time and again to be a non-factor in the running game.

But the offense was really a minor player. The Blackshirts were front and center, and deservedly so. Will they extend their crowd-pleasing run to the end of the season? That is Nebraska’s best 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