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November 13, 2010

Blackshirts dominate Jayhawks in 20-3 victory

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With a quarterback still reeling from an injury and an offense struggling to establish itself all night long, Nebraska needed to rely on its defense to pick up the slack in hopes of holding off a feisty Kansas team.

Needless to say, no one expected the Blackshirts to respond to the challenge quite like that.

The Huskers held the Jayhawks to just three points and 87 yards of total offense in a 20-3 victory, marking the lowest offensive output by an NU opponent since Baylor amassed only 84 yards in 2000.

Kansas's 15 passing yards on the night - which all came in the first half - were also the fewest since Nicholls State failed to throw for a single yard in 2006, and its five first downs were the fewest against Nebraska since KU only managed four in 1997.

"The defense played well," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I thought front to back we executed well, (and) we tackled well. I thought it was a really solid performance. You don't hold somebody to under 100 yards without playing good football… I didn't see a guy out there defensively who didn't play well. You don't hold somebody to that type of yardage without playing well across the board."

Though he wasn't quite 100 percent yet after suffering a high ankle sprain two weeks ago against Missouri, Nebraska decided to start redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Visibly limited running the football because of that ankle, Martinez still rushed 11 times for 71 yards in the game. However, the Corona, Calif., native was still able to make enough big plays when he needed to and get the Huskers an early lead they never let go.

"It was very important for me to get back out there, just to know that it's my team and no one else's team and for me to start establishing a rhythm once we go into Texas A&M and Colorado," said Martinez, who was 14-of-26 passing for 167 yards and an interception.

Though Martinez definitely wasn't his same explosive self as a runner, he still was able to make some plays with his arm. On Nebraska's two scoring drives in the first half, Martinez completed 6-of-7 passes for 66 yards and three first downs, and he finished the half with 106 yards passing and just three rushes for 10 yards.

On the first of those scoring drives, sophomore running back Rex Burkhead carried the ball five times and Martinez connected on first down passes to receivers Mike McNeill and Brandon Kinnie to march inside the Kansas 5-yard line.

Burkhead capped off the nine-play, 54-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation with 33 seconds left in the first quarter to give NU a 7-0 lead.

After the two teams traded stalled drives for much of the second quarter, the Huskers got on the scoreboard again when senior running back Roy Helu took a handoff to the right, cut up field and broke back outside down the sideline for a 20-yard touchdown run with 4:11 remaining in the half.

The 14-0 halftime lead didn't look like much, but it felt like more than enough with the way Nebraska's defense completely shut down the Jayhawks in the first half. Kansas managed 47 yards of total offense in the half, including just 15 passing yards, and only recorded three first downs.

Part of the reason for KU's offensive struggles was due to the pressure the Blackshirts were putting on quarterback Quinn Mecham. The Huskers sacked Mecham four times in the first half, including two by junior linebacker Lavonte David, and finished with six on the night.

David ended with a game-high 10 tackles and two sacks, while junior defensive tackle Jared Crick had nine tackles and a pair of sacks for arguably his best individual performance of the season.

"I've never been involved in anything even close to that," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "These days in college football teams are hanging up 700 yards, so to hold a team to 200-300 is considered a good defensive game. To hold a team to 87 yards is unbelievable."

Kansas finally got on the board with a 42-yard field goal by Jacob Branstetter in the third quarter, but Nebraska countered with a pair of Alex Henery field goals that were more than enough for the defense to close out the win.

Helu finished with a game-high 85 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while Burkhead rushed 19 times for 77 yards and score. Senior Niles Paul led all receivers with seven catches for 79 yards.

In reality, though, the most important stats came from the guys on the other side of the ball, or maybe more accurately, the lack of numbers from Kansas's offense.

"We've had a lot of great defensive performances, but (this one is) definitely up there," Crick said. "I can't name, you know, number-wise, one, two, whatever, but it's definitely a great performance, and it's one of the top one's I've seen since I've been here."

- Robin Washut

Martinez still not 100 percent

After the game, Bo Pelini told reporters that Martinez's play on Saturday was not at all affected by his injured ankle.

Anyone who watched the game, though, would find it hard for that to truly be the case.

While Martinez was serviceable in his return after sitting out the past game and half, it was obviously that he was lacking the same explosiveness that made him such an exceptional runner prior to the injury.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson didn't try to hide the fact that Martinez wasn't quite himself yet against the Jayhawks, though he was confident his quarterback would be there very soon.

"He's still on his way back," Watson said. "I think he's close, though. I could say he's 90-95 percent back. He did some good things tonight that I was really pleasantly surprised with."

Martinez was able to come up with a couple nice runs and make some impressive passes in spite of his injury, but he definitely wasn't his normal self. He threw a number of bad passes, including one potentially costly interception and another ball that was flat out dropped by a KU defender.

He also fumbled twice while running the ball, losing one inside Nebraska territory that could have resulted in crucial points for the Jayhawks.

Injury or not, Pelini said Martinez would have to play better as the Huskers get closer and closer to the postseason.

"I thought he was okay," Pelini said. "I thought he was a little rusty, especially at the start. I mean we tried to protect him a little bit, and that was kind of the plan going to in to ease him back into it. I thought he did some really good things, (and) I thought he had a couple throws he would like to have back, but overall I thought he played a pretty solid football game."

Watson said the way Martinez has bounced back from an injury that could have easily kept him out of Saturday's game is reassuring as Nebraska moves forward to next week's trip to take on Texas A&M.

For the sake of the offense as a whole, Watson said having a fully healthy Martinez back under center would be the shot in the arm the Huskers need.

"I think getting Taylor back is going to be big," Watson said. "Because we have really had to watch how we've handled him and managed him, especially with the game we have going next week, so that's step one, getting him back and getting him in the flow."

- Robin Washut

Pelini defends questionable final drive strategy

As the final minutes ticked off the clock, it was clear that Kansas head coach Turner Gill had all but thrown in the towel, as he opted not to use his timeouts as Nebraska steadily ran out the clock.

So when the Huskers kept their starting offense in for their final drive and suddenly threw the ball on three straight plays in the last minute of the game and then called a timeout with 10 seconds remaining, there was definitely an uneasy feeling going around Memorial Stadium.

Was Nebraska trying to run up the score on the Jayhawks, against a coach who did so much for the Huskers as a player and assistant over the span of two decades?

When asked about the thinking behind his late offensive strategy, Pelini played it off as nothing personal against Gill and the Jayhawks.

"We always try to score," Pelini answered simply.

Watson and Pelini said they were focused on getting their offense as many plays as possible after putting on such a lackluster performance for the majority of the game.

"We just hadn't played our best football," Watson said. "We wanted to go out and put guys back on the field again and get back to work, because that's what we need."

There was also the theory that maybe Nebraska was thinking about the BCS points it might save if it were to tack on another seven points to the final score. Pelini quickly put that theory to rest, though.

"I don't care about that," Pelini said. "I didn't like how we played at times offensively in the game. I didn't like our execution. That just gave us more reps to keep working and getting better. I don't care about the BCS. I could care less about the BCS. I could care less about anything else.

"It's about getting your football team better, and at that point I wasn't very happy with how we had played offensively. So we were going to keep playing and get the reps that we need to get."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Both Bo and Carl Pelini credited a big part of Nebraska's defensive success to the return of junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who basically missed the past two games with a concussion.

"Alfonzo, I think when you combine him with Prince (Amukamara), that's as good of a tandem of corners in the country," Bo said. "Obviously when he's not playing you're going to miss him. He played well. He played like he always does."

Added Carl:

"It was huge. I felt that all week. We're a different defense when he's opposite Prince. It's tough, because we can do a lot of things inside to stop the run and just trust that guys aren't going to get open on them."

***Asked if he felt Martinez could regain that same explosiveness as a runner after suffering an injury like his, Watson said he was fully confident Martinez would be back as good as ever.

"Oh yeah, he'll get it back," Watson said. "He's healed fast. He's gone from probably 70 percent to 90-95 percent, and he's been pretty remarkable in how he's approached his injury."

***Carl Pelini commented on how big of a factor David was not only on Saturday, but the entire season for Nebraska's defense.

"He's a spectacular football player," Carl said. "He's unbelievable. He was all over the place. He's a great athlete, he's fast and all that, but he is a smart, conscientious guy. He studies and gets his nose in the playbook. He spends as much preparation time as anybody we have, and it pays off for him on Saturday. That's why he's a great player."

***Carl also said Kansas came out with a few new additions to its offense, particularly the various Wildcat formations the Jayhawks used.

"We went back (and watch) six or seven games, so it was obviously new, trying to confuse our guys," Carl said. "(Nebraska) did a good job of fitting and adapted to it. Obviously, 87 yards later, who knows? Maybe it wasn't the greatest plan in the world to have."

***Carl said he issued a challenge to his defensive line to get more pressure on the quarterback this week.

"One thing I did coming into this game was I challenged the front guys," he said. "When you deal with young d-linemen, the transition from a run down to a pass down, you've got to play it differently, and if there was any complaint I had about their play coming in was in obviously passing situations they were too conservative.

"So I challenged them. 'Get you butts in there and go. Go have some fun and wreck some shop in the backfield.' And they did that today."

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