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November 6, 2010

Burkhead, Hagg keep Huskers from crumbling

With the whole Big 12 – including most of the front office staff in Dallas – crossing its fingers, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads and Eric Hagg dashed their hopes by bailing out Nebraska and keeping the Big Red Farewell Tour on track for a return to the conference title game.

Hagg’s interception of a fake PAT pass by holder Daniel Kuehl intended for tight end Collin Franklin allowed the Cornhuskers to escape Ames, Iowa, with a 31-30 overtime victory.

Thank heaven for Hagg. Thank heaven also for Mr. Steady, Rex Burkhead, who bailed out Mr. Inconsistency, Niles Paul.

Burkhead rushed for 129 yards on 20 carries. The sophomore from Plano, Texas, was the calmest, most seasoned veteran on either team this windy Saturday afternoon. He was part running back, part quarterback and deadly in the clutch.

burkhead (2K)
hagg (2K)
In overtime, Shawn Watson made his best decision of the day. He put the ball in Burkhead’s hands and kept it there. Burkhead rewarded Nebraska fans everywhere with a 19-yard touchdown run.

Meanwhile, Paul, who long ago should have been dialed in mentally and emotionally for the homestretch of his senior season, continues to have huge problems with focus and consistency. Paul handed the Cyclones the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter with his hesitant, “should-I-or-shouldn’t-I” kickoff return that he fumbled away on the Husker 13-yard line.

Watching Paul go about his business is like watching someone run through rush-hour traffic with a vial of nitroglycerine in his hands. Somebody is going to get hurt; it’s simply a matter of time. Sometimes it’s the opponent, as it was two weeks ago in Stillwater, Okla., but just as often, it’s the Huskers who get burned by Paul.

It was one of those unsteady days for the Huskers. For much of the game, Rhoads outcoached Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, who had big-time problems managing the clock in the second half, and had to burn a timeout when the Huskers had 12 defenders on the field at a critical moment in the fourth quarter.

But Rhoads outguessed himself in overtime. After ISU’s Austen Arnaud, injured ankle and all, capped a gutsy performance with his third touchdown pass of the day, Rhoades bypassed an extra point and went for the win. Problem was, he called a play that succeeds only if his holder makes a good touch pass against a 20-mph wind.

If you step back and look at the thing dispassionately, Nebraska won a road game while using its third-string quarterback most of the way. Burkhead took a lot of pressure off fellow Texan Cody Green by doing a lot of the ball handling out of the Wildcat formation, which was the best move Watson could have made under the circumstances.

Green made a few nice throws, and actually had the Huskers set up to win until Paul invited the Cyclones back into the game. He completed seven of 12 passes for 79 yards and although it was obvious that Pelini and Watson didn’t want him to do much throwing – at least not on a windy day – Green didn’t hurt the Huskers.

His lack of quickness was evident, however, and it’s obvious that without Taylor Martinez, the Huskers are pedestrian on offense – about where most observers figured they’d be this season before Martinez won the starting job.

On a windy day in Ames, it was Burkhead to the rescue. In the middle of the unsteadiness, it was Burkhead who held the Nebraska offense together and preserved the opportunity to play for the conference title.

Hagg did his part as well. You’ll recall that Hagg made a pair of clutch plays as a sophomore on the final drive to preserve Nebraska’s 26-21 Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. Saturday in Ames, he had a third-quarter interception that helped the Huskers grab a 24-10 lead.

Except for junior safety Austin Cassidy’s pick-six in the third quarter, Haag was the main bright spot on a very mediocre day for the Blackshirts, who allowed the Cyclones to run 80 plays from scrimmage and had a tough time getting off the field on third down. ISU converted seven of 15 third-down opportunities and scored touchdowns on each of its four trips into the red zone to make Nebraska’s last trip to Ames a precarious one.

Nebraska gave up 360 total yards, but survived by forcing the Cyclones into three turnovers. It was just enough to tip things in favor of the Huskers, who are 6-1 all-time in overtime games, and have scored touchdowns in seven of their eight overtime possessions.

Good teams win games like this when the situation seems to be deteriorating all around them. This may have been the toughest of Nebraska’s last four regular-season games. Then again, Texas A&M may have something to say about that in the Huskers’ final Big 12 road trip.

Dan Beebe and the whole Big 12 front office – who do not want the Huskers to leave town with a conference title – sincerely hope so.

Photo courtesy of Huskers.com

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 [email protected]. | Archive