Move over, Oklahoma. On Thursday night, the Nebraska Cornhuskers looked like the team to beat in the Big 12. Whether that proves to be true remains to be seen, but the Huskers certainly didn't do anything to suggest otherwise.
In Nebraska's opening Big 12 game, the Kansas State Wildcats had a great opportunity. They had the Huskers in a trap game at home. They had a chance to spring their star running back loose and run wild against a defense that, in the first four games, had looked vulnerable to the rush. They had a chance to give their birthday-boy head coach a win in one of the biggest games of his long and storied career at Kansas State.
What happened instead? Nebraska 48, Kansas State 13.
Happy birthday, Bill Snyder.
In what was the best game of Nebraska's season, redshirt-freshman sensation Taylor Martinez and the Huskers stormed into Manhattan, Kansas, and put a thorough beating on the overmatched Wildcats. Breathe a sigh of relief, Nebraska fans. The Huskers are okay after all.
I had the Huskers winning a close game, 24-20. I thought Snyder would have a great game plan going into the game that would keep the Huskers on edge and take the Huskers to the wire. I thought Daniel Thomas would rush for a hundred yards and give KSU a legitimate shot of the upset.
Boy, was I wrong.
Snyder did have a good game plan: pound the ball, bleed the clock, throw the occasional play-action pass, and force Taylor Martinez into mistakes. The only problem was, Nebraska played so well, the game plan was ineffective. At times, Snyder's plan was his own worst enemy. His offense would take big chunks off the clock and come away with nothing, and then the quick-strike Husker offense would answer with a touchdown.
In the end, the game plan didn't work because Nebraska's defense stepped up against a strong running game, and the offense returned to the explosive attack it displayed in the weeks prior to the South Dakota State game, proving unstoppable to an athletically outmatched K-State defense. On with the report.
Standout player: RFr QB Taylor Martinez
One word describes the Husker offense: explosive. The key to the vast offensive improvement since last season has been Taylor Martinez, who, after a deflating performance against South Dakota State, was simply spectacular Thursday night. Martinez sliced and diced the K-State defense with his wicked-fast legs, exploding for 241 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 15 carries, the most rushing yards for a quarterback in Nebraska history! Martinez amassed 369 yards and 5 total touchdowns, forcefully reinserting himself back into the Heisman conversation.
Roy Helu Jr. had another home run this game, dashing through a hole big enough for a train and going untouched, 68 yards for the touchdown. He needed only 8 carries to break the 100 yard barrier. Rex Burkhead had another solid game, getting 57 tough yards on 11 carries.
The receivers had a relatively quiet night statistically, but they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their dominant perimeter blocking, which helped bust Martinez loose on all of his big runs. Niles Paul had a catch for 17 yards, Mike McNeill had a couple of catches for 25 yards, and the speedy Kyler Reed caught an underthrown pass from Martinez and still outran the Kansas State defenders 79 yards for a touchdown.
The offensive line was a bit leaky at times in pass protection, but that doesn't matter much when your running game racks up 450 yards. Impressive run blocking from the line this game.
This game showed that this offense relies heavily upon completing intermediate passes early in the game. If it can do that, it becomes very tough to stop. Those intermediate passes soften up the defense, giving Martinez and the We-Backs running lanes.
And, oh boy, what Martinez can do with a running lane.
Martinez finished the first half a perfect 4 of 4 passing, and that was all that was needed. The offense blew the game open in the third quarter, almost exactly like it did against Washington, with an 80 yard touchdown run by Martinez on the first possession and a big run from Roy Helu on the next possession. When Martinez is on, this offense is all but unstoppable.
Standout Player: Jr LB Lavonte David
How 'bout them Blackshirts?!
Pelini expected his defenders to prove their mettle against a Heisman-caliber running back, and they did not disappoint. The run defense suddenly looked elite, holding Daniel Thomas to just 63 yards on 22 carries, his lowest total of the season by 13 yards. The defensive linemen not only ate up blocks for the linebackers, but took it a step further and dominated the K-State offensive line at times during the game.
The secondary gave up 14 completions to starter Carson Coffman, but 8 of those completions were check-downs to Thomas and all 14 only totalled 91 yards, a touchdown, which came after Nebraska was up 45-6 in the 4th quarter on a 4th and goal, and an interception (which was also meaningless, but Eric Hagg won't mind the extra stat). Nobody in particular stood out in the secondary, but the unit as a whole played a very solid game. Safeties Dejon Gomes and PJ Smith did very well coming up in run support.
The linebackers as a whole were also solid. They never gave up any big runs to Thomas, which was very important to slowing down this offense. Overall, the tackling was very solid given Thomas's ability to break tackles. Lavonte David continues to be a tackling machine. David flew around all night and was seemingly unblockable. He the refs even missed holding against David on a long run that led to KSU's only touchdown. Had he not been held, he would have made the tackle. He totaled 16 tackles and a sack, giving him 2 sacks on the year and 35 tackles over the last two games! His season tackle total now stands at a whopping 60 through the first 5 games.
Pelini's defense is designed to be able to stop the run without having to stack the box and expose the secondary, and it worked to perfection Thursday night. Incredible game for the Blackshirts.
Looking back to 2007, isn't it nice to have a defense, fellow Husker fans?
If there was a weakness on the night for the Huskers, it was on special teams. This was not a typical night for Nebraska's normally-solid kickoff coverage, and the return game was pretty average. However, on a dominating night, this was merely a petty annoyance. Kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic was brilliant, often slugging the ball through the end-zone, and kicker Alex Henery drilled both his field goal attempts. Overall, Nebraska will need to solidify the special teams in preparation for Texas next weekend.
Overall Grade: A
This was a fantastic win for the Huskers, who regained their confidence through a beat-down of a good Kansas State football team on national television. Nebraska now has a couple extra days to prepare for a dangerous Texas team that is much better than their ranking suggests and will be itching for Husker blood. If the Huskers can get by the 'Horns, their path to the Big 12 Championship looks navigable. Hold on to your hats, Husker fans. On the legs of Taylor Martinez, we could be in for an electrifying ride.