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November 26, 2010

T-Rex leads Huskers back to Big 12 party in Texas

Rex Burkhead may not have been Superman, but a depleted Nebraska offense rode him to a big lead midway through the game and the Cornhuskers coasted back into the Big 12 Championship by smacking down Colorado 45-17 Friday at Memorial Stadium.

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Cody Green and the offensive line shared the spotlight with Burkhead. Green (who, despite his checkered reputation as a leader, is 4-0 as a starter at NU) had by far his best performance as a Husker. He ran the offense turnover-free, got around the corner a couple of times on option runs and completed 10 of 13 passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Green kept moving the chains with big-play threat Taylor Martinez watching the whole game from the sidelines. The Huskers were 11 of 17 on third down. After being berated for looking unprepared and relatively unimpressive in his previous opportunities, Green finally took an opportunity and made the most of it. He looked calm and capable in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, and managed the game well. Green finally gave Husker Nation some peace of mind about the status of its backup quarterback.

It was an encouraging performance by the o-line, which enabled Nebraska to run for 265 yards without the benefit of any 30-yard plays against a rushing defense that was ranked in the Top 30 nationwide, nearly doubling up the Buffaloes in time of possession.

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But T-Rex was the biggest difference-maker. The sophomore rushed for 100 yards for the second straight year against CU. He also tossed a pair of touchdown passes, as offensive coordinator Shawn Watson finally turned him loose to throw the ball out of the Wildcat formation. His versatility keeps coming in handy.

T was for Touchdown for Burkhead, who ran for one and threw for two more. He ended a nine-play, 72-yard drive in the second quarter by plowing up the middle for a 2-yard score, something that gave a much-needed boost to an offense that had to be wondering -- after going seven quarters without a touchdown -- if it could finish a long drive without self-inflicted wounds. NU committed eight penalties for 79 yards. That's not good by any stretch, but nearly half of them came on one second-quarter drive, and the Huskers didn't allow yellow flags to make a difference in this game.

So it's another trip to the championship game for a program that is overdue for a conference title. The Huskers' last Big 12 game will be in Texas after all.

It was a satisfying end to the conference series against Colorado, which often considered itself a rival of Nebraska and for nine years has hung its hat on a 26-point victory over the Huskers in 2001. CU often played its best football against the Big Red, but found itself on the short end of 28- and 27-point margins as Nebraska finished the series by winning 11 of 15 games played in the "feature game" setting on the day after Thanksgiving, including five of the last six. Two of those victories denied CU a bowl berth. Denver Post sportswriter John Henderson referred to CU as Nebraska's "paddling boy" in his postgame story.

But on to more important things than beating up on Jealous Little Brother.

Bo Pelini has second consecutive 10-win season and is 30-10 all-time as a head coach. The game officiating was excellent and Pelini was on his best sideline behavior while maintaining his intensity. We even saw him smile a couple times in the fourth quarter. Now we'll see if his big-game coaching experience gained in the Southeastern Conference and in last year's gut-wrenching 13-12 loss to Texas can help him devise a defensive scheme to stall out whatever offense comes at the Huskers from the South Division. I get the feeling that the Pelini brothers have another twist or two that they can pull out for a certain party in Dallas where nobody in the Big 12 front office ever wanted to see them again.

No matter who lines up against Nebraska in the last Big 12 Championship, at least a two other things besides Burkhead are in Nebraska's favor -- a resurgent Blackshirt defense and Alex Henery. The senior kicker tied Kris Brown for the career Nebraska scoring lead, and booted yet another tough field goal -- a 42-yarder into a 20-mph crosswind -- that he made look easy.

I look for a tense defensive struggle at Cowboys Stadium, one that Henery could play a decisive role in. Nebraska got to the title game the hard way, but even without some of its most explosive weapons, now has a chance to make its Big 12 exit just the way it wants.

Photos 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 tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive