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October 16, 2010

Huskers let another Texas opportunity slip through their fingers

Sometimes I hate being a student of history. It can bog you down. As the Nebraska-Texas kickoff approached, and my concerns kept resurfacing, I told myself that 19- and 20-year-olds don’t care that the Longhorns had defeated the Cornhuskers eight of the last nine games. They’re not supposed to be concerned with such stuff.

But on an otherwise beautiful Saturday in Lincoln, it looked like the Nebraska football team had suddenly become students of the Texas-Nebraska series as well, because they fell right into step with a long line of Huskers who came down with bad cases of stage fright against the Longhorns.

This was the game of missed passes and missed tackles. For the third time, an unranked Texas team beat a Top 10-rated Nebraska team. For the fourth time in a row, Texas won in Lincoln by a touchdown or less, although this one was quite a bit more decisive than the previous three.

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Dennis Hubbard
Taylor Martinez
The Longhorns tackled freshman Taylor Martinez, time and again, and the Blackshirts didn’t tackle sophomore Garrett Gilbert, who came into the game with fewer than 50 yards rushing all season ? much less than one decent Martinez run from scrimmage.

But while Martinez was ineffective, Gilbert rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns against a surprised Nebraska defense, and Cody Johnson thundered for 73 more, mostly in the second half. The Cornhuskers were weak against the run much of the day after looking like they had finally gotten over that problem against Daniel Thomas and Kansas State.

This Nebraska team had a chance to turn around its history of futility against the Longhorns. And the best way to do that was to start strong against a 3-2 Texas team that had to be harboring doubts about itself coming into the game.

Unfortunately, Nebraska allowed Texas to erase most of those doubts right out of the chute, failing to cover a long punt by Alex Henery and stumbling around trying to tackle the Longhorns’ quarterback on several occasions. Most notably, on a key third-and-8 play from the Nebraska 19-yard line, senior safety Rickey Thenarse didn’t bother to wrap up Gilbert, who bounced off Thenarse and got a first down at the Nebraska 9. It would not be the last time that Thenarse missed a tackle on a Texas touchdown drive. But two plays later, Gilbert score on a 3-yard run. Less than halfway through the first quarter, the Horns led 10-0 and had control of the game.

“That 10-0 lead gave us all the confidence in the world we needed,” Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Lack of senior leadership on Nebraska’s part also played a big role. The best I saw came from third-string quarterback Zac Lee, who entered the game with about six minutes left in the third quarter and led Nebraska on a long drive that ended in a field goal, then hit Brandon Kinnie in the hands at the 3-yard line with a sure touchdown pass.

With a momentum-changing touchdown in his hip pocket, Kinnie dropped the ball.

He wasn’t alone. Senior Niles Paul and sophomore Rex Burkhead also dropped sure touchdown passes. The ABC-TV team counted eight Husker drops in all; the Husker radio network had the total at seven. But we know for sure that the Husker offensive unit has not scored a touchdown against Texas for eight quarters and counting.

Nebraska showed that it is not yet a consistent football team except for Mr. Consistency himself, Alex Henery, who calmly drilled a pair of field goals from 45 and 28 yards. The big question before the Huskers now is whether they will lose twice in October again, as they did in each of Bo Pelini’s first two seasons. It will take some leadership to avoid that next week at unbeaten Oklahoma State, or the following week against Missouri who would be unbeaten coming into Lincoln Oct. 30 if it somehow beats Oklahoma next week.

One place you didn’t find leadership was from Paul, who provided most of Nebraska’s big plays last year, but has piled up some stats but has not been a difference-maker through six games of his senior campaign.

On a day when the Huskers desperately needed Paul to make big plays, he dropped touchdown passes.

Last year, Paul made plays on a rainy night in Columbia, Mo., to jump-start his season. This year, after asking coaches to get him the ball more often, he let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Husker quarterbacks threw to him time and again, and although Paul caught six for 66 yards, his drops effectively nullified everything else he did. Three times inside the Texas 10, Paul missed balls that hit his hands or went right between them.

Meanwhile, Texas played good fundamental football. It used a good kicking game to full advantage to put Nebraska into poor field position. Then, at crunch time, the Longhorns just sat back and let the Huskers beat themselves.

At big moments in the game, senior leaders step forward and make big plays. No one really answered the call for Nebraska on this day, although Eric Hagg got the Huskers back into the game with a 95-yard return of a pooch punt that made it 20-13 with 3:02 left.

I wonder where the senior leadership will come from on this team. One thing’s for sure; on Saturday, there was absolutely none to be found in the offensive line as the Huskers were held to only 125 yards rushing.

NU seniors Keith Williams, D.J. Jones and Ricky Henry were outplayed decisively by the Texas defensive front. On the other side of the ball, the Texas o-line was at least a little better than the Husker front four. The Longhorns left Lincoln thinking that the loss of Ndamukong Suh makes a big difference in this Husker defense, which allowed the mediocre Texas offense to rush for more than 200 yards.

The vacuum is worse on the offensive side than the defensive, but how many takeaways did the Blackshirts get against a beatable Texas team with an inexperienced quarterback? Zero. That was largely because they got very little pressure on Gilbert, and finished with zero sacks.

All told, Nebraska got out-coached by a little, but got out-executed by a lot. Whether it’s Frank Solich, Bill Callahan or Bo Pelini on the sideline, Nebraska has a history of it.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker has covered University of Nebraska and state 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