Nebraska started its new post-Thanksgiving rivalry out in the right way, beating Iowa 20-7 in a game that was never really a blowout but never really in doubt for NU. Injuries on both sides of the ball left Nebraska relying on Rex Burkhead earning his “Superman” nickname on offense and on a “all hands on deck” policy on defense.
So let’s take a look at the grade for each of Nebraska’s units in its final regular season game of 2011 and see if we can get a better understanding of why the inaugural Heroes Game turned out the way it did.
Taylor Martinez injured his ankle early in the contest, limiting his ability to scramble and run the ball. Still, he went 12-of-22 for 160 passing, a touchdown on a well-designed jump pass, and possibly most importantly, no turnovers.
At the end of 2010, Martinez was a player with unquestioned big-play ability when healthy but always prone to the critical mistake. At the end of 2011, he’s almost become the reverse.
Still, his T-Manager role against Iowa was enough to help Nebraska lift a trophy at the end of the 2011 season.
It’s entirely possible that journalists and columnists writing about Rex Burkhead are going to run out of adjectives. After spending most of the week in a walking boot, Burkhead was called on to carry the load against Iowa after Taylor Martinez injured his ankle and responded by breaking the school’s single-game record for total carries with 38.
Oh, yeah, he also gained 160 yards and scored a touchdown.
Lost in the shuffle of Burkhead’s brilliance was some more significant playing time for Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green.
Both players had solid, if not spectacular performances. But it was, without question, Burkhead’s day.
Sure, the drops are still an issue. But in the final game of the season, Kenny Bell began to show the type of promise as a freshman that will electrify the hopes of Nebraska fans as the long offseason looms.
(Of course, it’s very similar to the type of progress freshman Jamal Turner showed at the start of the season before he disappeared, but we’re trying to be positive here.)
In a game where Rex Burkhead gets 38 carries, the wide receivers aren’t going to be the biggest part of the show. But the receivers, Bell in particular, made the plays they needed to at the times they needed to for Nebraska to keep control of the game against Iowa and win.
Possibly the best game Nebraska’s offensive line played as a unit all year, and almost certainly the best game they played in conference.
Iowa’s defense, while not world-beating, was good enough to cause problems, and Nebraska put together long drive after long drive to eat up the clock and wear the Hawkeyes out physically and mentally.
Nebraska’s makeshift offensive line still performed well enough to allow Rex Burkhead to churn out 160 yards to keep an injured Taylor Martinez upright and to help Nebraska have a 15-minute edge in time of possession.
OK, this one’s on a little bit of a curve. But the defensive line went into the game already depleted with the injuries to Jared Crick and Thaddeus Randle. Then, when Baker Steinkuhler and Terrence Moore also got hurt, the stage was set for Iowa’s Marcus Coker to have a big game on a grand stage.
Instead, Coker was held to 87 yards and a consolation touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That effort by anyone is impressive, but when you consider how it was done with second and third-team guys, the result becomes all the more admirable.
It seems fitting that on senior day, Lavonte David would have another masterpiece play to send the fans home happy with.
In the third quarter, David brought down Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, stripping the ball and recovering the fumble. Another highlight in a career filled with them.
But the play of Will Compton shouldn’t be overlooked in David’s brilliance. In the second half of the season, as he has become more healthy, Compton has begun to mature and develop into the playmaker Nebraska fans hoped he would be.
If the Children of the Corn are looking for hope in a post-David world, No. 51 isn’t a bad place to start looking.
Marvin McNutt came into the game as arguably the best wide receiver in the B1G and one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges to face. He left Lincoln with four catches for 29 yards, and most of those on a meaningless fourth-quarter drive to make things look more respectable.
Much of that credit goes to Alfonzo Dennard, of course, who spent most of the game locked up on McNutt and taking him out of the game. But Andrew Green also recovered from his poor start to the season to play a solid game and give NU fans some hope for the secondary’s future.
The special teams unit didn’t produce anything spectacular but also avoided the back-breaking mistakes made in Ann Arbor a week ago.
Brett Maher proved himself automatic from within 40 yards yet again.
And Nebraska’s kick and punt coverage teams kept Iowa penned in and forced the Hawkeyes to drive the field against a Blackshirts unit that had found its mojo after a bad week at the office against Michigan.
Give it to Bo Pelini and his staff, they got NU ready to win a big game after an ugly, ugly loss the week before.
Pelini was well aware of what was at stake if Nebraska lost, and NU came out firing. Penalties and miscues in the first quarter certainly gave some reason for concern, but once Nebraska settled into the game, it was able to take control.
For the first time in three years, Nebraska will be sitting home and watching a conference championship game. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Nebraska also won its last game before the bowl for the first time in three years.
What that means for the team's mindset going into the postseason is hard to judge. But given that NU is likely to get a New Year's Day bowl game against a top opponent, last year’s motivation issue shouldn’t be a concern.
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