A Nebraska defensive unit that was on life support a few weeks ago was seen running around and testing itself, just like a racehorse healing up from a badly broken leg starts to walk, then trot, and finally gallop around the pasture.
It all looked somewhat measured, even cautious. The Cornhusker defense played very gingerly at times. There is almost no reckless abandon among Carl Pelini’s charges – no jumped pass routes, only one takeaway, even against one of the nation’s worst offenses. There is no hint yet of a killer instinct. But there was enough success to allow some of the first-stringers to sit on the bench, smile and draw a relaxed breath as the final minutes of the game played out.
If you were worried that Minnesota coach Jerry Kill would once again collapse on the sideline, you walked away relieved because this game didn’t provide any anxious moments.
Most anxiety in the Husker Nation these days surrounds the performance of the not-yet-Blackshirts, the unit that was badly injured in Madison, Wis., and got ripped to shreds on its home turf in the first 35 minutes against Ohio State. It used a very welcome bye week to make some adjustments, but mostly repair its battered psyche. Although it played with heart down the stretch against the Buckeyes, it desperately needed some healing. And a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis was therapy for it.
In a 41-14 victory at TCF Bank Stadium, the Cornhuskers held Big Ten punching bag Minnesota to 160 total yards through three quarters. Then they appeared to tire and lose their focus in the fourth, despite getting plenty of rest while Rex Burkhead and the Husker o-line punished Minnesota for much of the game. Nebraska piled up 515 yards of total offense, including a season-high 346 on the ground.
The 1-6 Gophers ended up with 254 yards, well under their average of 300 a game, but got stronger in the fourth, when they held the ball more than nine minutes. By then, the Husker offense had given Taylor Martinez the rest of the day off after a solid performance. Brion Carnes came off the bench to get some much-needed work at quarterback, and the Huskers’ three freshman I-backs combined for 93 yards on 20 carries to back up Burkhead. One of the best statistics of the day was Nebraska’s 79-to-57 edge in plays from scrimmage.
This was not a tough challenge for the Nebraska defense, but I got the sense that Pelini believed his defense needed to play conservatively to avoid getting burned – even by a lousy Minnesota football team that seemed content just to take baby steps all day long.
And the fourth quarter, when the Huskers got slowly shoved back into their own end zone on a 16-play, 89-yard drive by the Gophers, provided reason enough for Michigan State coaches to believe they can make a living next Saturday by pounding their junior tailback, Edwin Baker, at the Huskers all game long.
Mostly, the news was good. The Huskers made a few big plays, including four tackles for loss. They even scored when senior safety Austin Cassidy returned a fumble 11 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
The defense line held up pretty well in its first outing without Jared Crick. Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah and Eric Martin were active at end, and the young defensive tackles were solid overall for three quarters. The linebackers appeared to be in better position for much of the game. The secondary looked solid for the most part.
Bo Pelini was encouraged by his defense, saying the technique, understanding and execution all improved.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” he said.
We’ll know a lot more after a solid group of Spartans marches into Memorial Stadium a week from now.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org