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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 27, 2009

 
In a battle of give-and-take in Boulder the day after Thanksgiving, NU gained just enough from the day’s transactions to roll into Dallas next weekend for the Big 12 title game with as five-game winning streak and a reputation as a team that is learning to get the job done, one way or another.

Give Colorado the statistics and the moral victory, or whatever label the Buffaloes want to stick on it. Even before their 56-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass on the game’s final play, CU had outgained Nebraska by a 347-217 margin.

Give CU Dan Hawkins as head coach for at least one more year, where he will try to improve on his 16-33 record. And take Bo Pelini, who continues to find ways to get a lot out of a little. Nebraska really comes out on the good end of that deal.

Give Colorado credit for battling the Blackshirt defense as well as anyone has during the second half of the season. But don’t forget to give the Buffs three big turnovers and only two of five scores on red-zone opportunities, including two devastating penalties on a fourth-quarter drive that bogged down at the NU 15 on a pass interception by Prince Amukamara.

Take a 28-20 victory over an up-and-down Colorado football team that had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and get out of town. Take an encouraging performance by Rex Burkhead, a gritty, no-nonsense, just-get-the-job-done type of player simply finds a way to get north and south. Burkhead, a true freshman, rushed for 100 yards on 18 carries.

This was another ugly victory for a team that has looked ugly on offense for much of the season. But it was a victory that has been typical of the Nebraska-Colorado games held in Boulder for the past two decades, where NU has won seven of the last nine decisions. And it was much more satisfying than NU’s last trip to the Flatirons, when Bill Callahan’s flash-and-dazzle West Coast offense put up 35 first-half points, then self-destructed for the next 25 minutes to give away an 11-point halftime lead in Callahan’s final game as head coach.

Nebraska has not looked all that impressive in Boulder during that run, except for 1995 (a 44-21 Husker win) and 2005 (perhaps Callahan’s most impressive performance as Nebraska coach, a 30-3 trouncing of CU). Five of those wins have been by nine points or less. Whether under Osborne, Solich, Callahan or Pelini, those victories have come because Nebraska made more big plays in key moments than CU did, and that was the story once again.

Mostly, what Husker fans can celebrate about this game is back-to-back ninth-win seasons for the first time since 2001 and apparently, no serious injuries. But there were a few other moments to savor.

There was special teams, where Niles Paul’s 59-yard punt return for a touchdown and Alex Henery’s effective punting put the Husker defense in a position to dictate the terms of the game to CU.

In mid-October, Nebraska lost a game to an Iowa State team that was more opportunistic than the Huskers. Since then, Nebraska has learned to be more opportunistic itself. NU got 14 points from its defense and special teams, and needed every single one of them. In Boulder Friday, Matt O’Hanlon’s 20-yard interception return for a score in the second period put the Blackshirts in a position to close out Colorado with a strong second-half performance. Unfortunately, the Nebraska defense whiffed on that opportunity, missing numerous chances to stop Buff drives and get off the field.

So for at least the second time this season, the NU offense muscled up and bailed out the winded Blackshirts with a big touchdown drive. The game-clinching, 13-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 6:52 of the fourth quarter was the most encouraging thing the Huskers did all day long, and Burkhead was right in the middle of it, gaining 55 yards on nine carries that deflated all Colorado hopes of winning the game.

It was power football the way it should be played. Later, veteran CU football announcer Larry Zimmer declared that it looked like an old-time Nebraska punishing drive with 70 of the 80 yards coming on the ground.

This was a drive where the right side of the Husker offensive line seemed to come of age. Two junior linemen — right guard Ricky Henry and right tackle D.J. Jones — started to overshadow the more experienced left side of the line. Henry looked especially good on that drive, pulling to his left and pancaking CU defensive end Marquez Herrod on Burkhead’s 15-yard run that really started the drive. It was the only time all day that Nebraska looked consistent on offense.

But no matter. Pelini seems to be finding ways to keep this team together. The Huskers have won five consecutive Big 12 road games for the first time since 1997. They have their second five-game winning streak in Pelini’s two seasons at the helm, and Nebraska is 7-1 in November under Pelini.

And now, on to Dallas, where Nebraska has a big chance to put together a historic effort against undefeated Texas. It has a chance to win its first game against a Top 10-rated opponent since 2001 and move into second place in Big 12 football titles. It would be the ultimate in getting a lot out of a little, and frankly, it seems dubious. But on a gray October day when all Nebraska was paralyzed by eight turnovers, just getting out of the season with a winning record seemed equally as unlikely. Nobody’s going to tell Bo that it can’t be done.

 

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.