SEATTLE -- Nebraska used to do this every week. Remember? It used to bloody lips, bruise ribs and strangle egos. There were days when Saturday's 383 rushing yards were met with a shrug of the shoulders.
Just average, nothing great. We can be better.
|QB Taylor Martinez gets out in front of Nebraska's running attack. (Getty Images)|
Nice sentiment, but what could have been known as the Cody Green Memorial Sympathy Snap almost gutted Nebraska's 56-21 gutting of Washington. Because it was his turn, the sophomore was in the game edging forward from his own 12 with six minutes left in the first half. He fumbled, setting up the Huskies for their easiest touchdown of the day during what turned out to be its toughest day of the season.
At that point it was 21-14 Nebraska and senior left guard Keith Williams had seen enough. He led a mini-insurrection by the offensive line. No switching quarterbacks. Hell, no passing as far he was concerned.
"We came to the sidelines and we demanded that we wanted to run the ball," Williams said. "We wanted to prove it. So we proved it. We asked for it. They gave it to us."
Sometimes coaching staffs are brilliant. Sometimes they outthink themselves. Sometimes they follow a script that doesn't make much sense. Sometimes they listen wisely to a 6-foot-5, 330-pound man and equally large teammates. The eight-play drive that followed Williams' "suggestion" was not so much medieval in its brutal efficiency, but mid-90s. That's the last time Nebraska was winning national championships, three of them in a four-year stretch, by consistently pancaking fools in road-grading fashion.
"That's why I came," said Williams, a 6-foot-5, 310-pounder from the St. Louis suburbs. "It was downhill, physical football. Letting the defense know we're running right at you. Boom, boom, boom."
The eight plays that followed Green's fumble went for 7, 10, 9, 3, 4, 6, and 8 yards before a 1-yard touchdown by Martinez. If the redshirt freshman announced himself to the country on Saturday (four touchdowns, three of them rushing) then Nebraska reintroduced itself. That drive was part of 20 consecutive running plays by the Huskers that spanned two halves, gained 242 yards and produced four rushing touchdowns. That included Green's fumble and a Martinez kneel-down at the end of the first half.
It's clear that Nebraska got pissed, then it got even.
Well, not exactly even. It pulled away in the second half with three touchdowns in the first 6 1/2 minutes of the third quarter. Williams got his wish as Nebraska passed just three times in the second half. Green, it should be noted, didn't see the field again until Nebraska's final possession when he promptly fumbled again. Good luck with the script. The game plan is doing just fine.
"That was," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, "as complete a football game as we've played since we've been here."
So, are the Huskers back?
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In terms of an identity they are. The 383 yards marked the first time in eight years Nebraska has gone 300-plus yards rushing in back-to-back games. Three Huskers cracked 100 yards for only the fifth time in its history. That's also the first time that has ever happened to Washington. The 20,000 Big Red mad men (and women) who wedged into Husky Stadium would bet you that their Huskers are ready for their closeup. It is a top 10 team that intimidates on both sides of the ball and has found a jewel in Martinez, a redshirt freshman who plays lot like former Heisman winner Eric Crouch.
There aren't many opponents that come to this stadium and have to take a prolonged victory lap, slapping hands with fans.
"I love what they're doing," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said of an offense that rolled up 533 yards. "It takes a lot of pressure off us on the defensive side, pressure we've felt for two years."
Pressure, mainly, to get Nebraska to matter again. Bo and Carl are defensive wizards first who seemingly need only a matching offense to make it all come together. Having another playmaker, or two, might have been the difference in December's 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game. Now they've got Martinez, a wiry Californian who was discovered by Carl and won the job last month.
"I thought he served notice," Carl Pelini said. "When I was recruiting him there were a lot of Pac-10 coaches kind of snorting at the idea of us playing him at quarterback."
For Martinez's counterpart, the emotion had to be abject pity for Washington's Jake Locker. Facing a great defense, on national television, with no one to throw to and loaded up with NFL hype, Locker had perhaps the worst day of his career -- 4 for 20, 71 yards, two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Call it an NFL workshop if Locker is, as projected, the No. 1 overall draft choice next spring. These are the kinds of games he will endure with the Lions, Chiefs, (fill in NFL dog here) etc.
"This is," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said, "the top pass defense in America."
It helps to have two possible All-Americans in the secondary -- corner Prince Amukamara and safety DeJon Gomes. It also helps when "the other guys" -- corner Alfonzo Dennard and nickelback Eric Hagg -- share the glory with interceptions on Saturday.
Nebraska has felt pressure to get back, really, for the last past decade or so. It last won a conference title in 1999. Two years later it got into the national championship game because of some weird BCS math where it got smoked by Miami. That was the beginning of The Decline that has included the departure of Frank Solich and the misguided hiring of Bill Callahan.
The Flying Pelini Bros. are perfect for the makeover. They are crusty enough to understand the Big Red longing for success and smart enough to coach the right things. One of the signature plays of the game was receiver Brandon Kinnie's block downfield on a Washington defensive back to spring Roy Helu for a 65-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
"That's what we do," said Kinnie, a specimen at 6-3, 220 who could be a T.O.-like impact player in a more pass-friendly offense. "We pride ourselves on blocking."
Try to get T.O. to say that.
It doesn't matter. On Saturday, Williams already did.
"If we keep doing what we're doing," he said, "it's going to be a special team and a special year."