The week after losing to UCLA and a much maligned defensive performance proved to be a tough one for the Big Red and the rest of Husker Nation. Fortunately, a wounded defense stepped up and the offense rolled along for the Huskers in a 42-13 win over Arkansas State, despite head coach Bo Pelini being taken to a local hospital at halftime.
It wasn’t only the lackluster effort against UCLA that made the week tumultuous, as sophomore defensive tackle Chase Rome parted ways with the team abruptly early in the week. You could see the hurt, but determined demeanor from the players all week at practice as the coaches spoke of how they WOULD remedy the problems against the Bruins. It started out rough, but Gus Malzahn’s Red Wolves went for a fourth-down conversion on the opening drive and failed to convert. The game was in little doubt afterward, as the Huskers marched 51 yards on 9 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Ameer Abdullah’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Abdullah would prove to be the work horse on the afternoon as the sophomore ran 30 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns against an overmatched Red Wolves’ defense. The offensive line dominated from start to finish and asserted early on that they would control the line of scrimmage. Although the play-calling got a little vanilla on one drive, it served its purpose. After hooking up with Kyler Reed for 22 yards down the middle, Taylor Martinez threw the first of two touchdown passes on the afternoon to Kenny Bell—the first one a 42-yard strike to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead.
On the field, the game changed little in the second quarter. The Huskers kept Arkansas State at bay as Martinez hooked up with Bell on a 25-yard touchdown strike with Abdullah going in from two yards out to give Nebraska a comfortable 28-3 halftime lead. On the sideline however, we caught a glimpse of Pelini having his pulse checked by a team doctor. At halftime, Pelini was interviewed coming off the field by Lewis Johnson of ESPN2 and said he wasn’t feeling well, but would be fine. It was the last we saw of Pelini on the field Saturday, as he left at halftime and was taken to Bryan LGH West Hospital via ambulance. After the game, an update from Athletic Director Tom Osborne in addition to a statement from Pelini relayed by Nebraska Media Relations Director Keith Mann confirmed that the tests at the hospital were precautionary and that Pelini was ‘fine’. More on Pelini’s condition to come in this column.
So at halftime, you have a Nebraska team with a comfortable lead, but without their head coach. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis assumed the role as head coach in the second half, which saw a very bizarre third quarter. There are four numbers that sum it up for the Red Wolves offense—15, 10, 3, and 0. That’s 15 yards of total offense, 10 total points, 3 turnovers received and 0 first downs. Nebraska held the ball for 11:15 in the third quarter, marched up and down the field and held Arkansas State out of the end zone but lost ten points off their lead.
But the Huskers would be rewarded as Imani Cross capped a 57 yard, 12 play drive that took 6:22 off the clock with a two-yard touchdown run—his first career touchdown—as the Huskers took a 35-13 lead. It would have been understandable if the defense let down after scoring that touchdown, but they didn’t. Eric Martin broke through on fourth-and short and sacked Ryan Aplin, forced a fumble, and recovered the fumble as Nebraska took over on the Red Wolves’ 43. Four plays later, Martinez ran 18 yards to put the Huskers up 42-13 and provide the final points on the afternoon. Abdullah had the final of his 30 carries on the afternoon on that drive, yielding to Cross and Braylon Heard on the final drive of the afternoon, which culminated in Mike Marrow’s fumble on the Arkansas State two-yard line. Nebraska improves to 2-1 on the year to avoid their first 1-2 start since 1981 with the 42-13 victory.
But the win was overshadowed by the status of Pelini. You could tell from the way he walked off the field after being interviewed that the coach was moving a little slower, not jogging at his usual speed before heading to the locker room. Give credit to the Husker Sports Network for relaying just before the start of the third quarter that Pelini had been taken to the hospital via ambulance as a precautionary measure. With the game almost secondary at that point and as Nebraska ran out the clock to victory, all focus moved to the post-game press conference. Osborne took to the podium and informed us that Pelini looked to be in good shape. This was confirmed by Mann, who read a statement from Pelini relayed through the athletic department.
The early reports were that Pelini was taken to the hospital for flu-like symptoms. I won’t pretend to be a doctor, but when you’re getting your pulse checked on your left arm and are moving a bit slower…it’s probably something else. Make no mistake—coaching college football is a stressful job that requires long days, a lot of travel, and constant, consistent scrutiny and one that has seen a head coach or two leave games with health concerns—see Minnesota’s Jerry Kill last season. Hopefully, as it was for precautionary measures, let’s hope that Pelini is of course in good health and that Saturday was nothing more than that. Here is Pelini's statement issued through the athletic department after the game:
“Everything is fine. They ran some precautionary tests and everything checked out just fine. I plan to be back at work tomorrow. I’m proud of our team and coaching staff for the way they responded this afternoon.”
Let’s get to the grades and game balls
I mentioned earlier that the offense, after taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, got a bit more conservative and shifted more to the running game. This was of course, by design. Arkansas State’s offensive game plan was to run as many plays as possible, not necessarily for big plays, but to keep a frantic pace to the game. After leaving the running game behind in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss, Nebraska went just over 80 percent run for this game and 20 percent pass. Abdullah had career highs in carries (30), yards (167), and touchdowns (2) in addition to two catches for 39 yards. Martinez sparkled again, going 13 of 14 for 180 yards and two touchdowns. In two home games thus far in 2012, Martinez has completed 39 of 48 passes for 534 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. He did have two fumbles on the day however, which directly led to the Red Wolves’ lone touchdown on the day.
The line played clean, except for a clipping penalty on Justin Jackson with no holding penalties and no false starts. I loved how Tim Beck and company knew they had a massive mismatch up front, exploited it, and coasted to an easy win. Overall grade would be a B+, for a sluggish third quarter from a turnover standpoint which saw the Huskers lose three of their four fumbles on the day.
We heard all week how Arkansas State was going to come in and put up a slew of points and turn this into a shootout. The genius of Gus Malzahn was going to shred (or at least test) a Blackshirt defense that was abysmally porous a week earlier against UCLA. The thing is, Arkansas State did put up big numbers in their loss to Oregon and win over Memphis—over 500 yards of total offense in both games, 300 plus yards passing from Ryan Aplin in both games and 81 and 97 plays respectively in both games. After what happened against UCLA, the fear was a repeat performance was in the works. It was not.
Nebraska clamped down in the second half allowing a paltry 89 yards of total offense as Arkansas State tallied 286 for the game, ran only 69 plays, and Aplin threw for only 138 yards on 30 attempts. The tackling was much better in the open field, specifically from safety PJ Smith who turned in a team-high nine tackles in addition to an interception and two tackles for loss. The Blackshirts sacked Aplin three times on the afternoon after the Red Wolves quarterback had not been sacked at all in the first two games. There were some missed tackles and some open space in the late first quarter and early second quarter that Arkansas State got some good yards from, but overall, the Blackshirts dominated most of the game. Malzahn’s offense does stretch you out and force tempo, but ultimately this version of it seems to be nothing more than an exercise in wind sprints and an attempt to run as many plays as possible. The defense passed with flying colors. We’ll give them an A, which is partly based on the improvement from last week—opponent talent levels aside.
The Special Teams
Brett Maher got to give his leg a rest from field goal kicking duties and only registered two punts on the afternoon, hitting those for an average of 57.5 yards per kick. It wasn’t as if he hit an extremely long punt to bring up his average either on those two kicks, he hit a 57 yard punt and a 58 yarder—I’d say the swing is straightened out. He also hit four touchbacks. Other than the highly-questionable fumble from Abdullah on a third quarter punt that apparently hit off his foot, there were no qualms with the special teams. It’s a little more on the incomplete side of things, but when you’re not relying on special teams to win you a game, you have to consider that a good thing. We’ll give the special teams a B+.
30 carries, 167 yards and two touchdowns from Ameer Abdullah on the ground provided for an easy choice for the offense’s player of the game. Abdullah assured us over the week that he can be a running back who runs inside for tough yards and could carry 20-plus times if necessary. Far be it for any of us to doubt the man from Homewood, Alabama, as he delivered and then some. Martinez was also great with the one incompletion and Kenny Bell added two more touchdowns on the afternoon to give him three on the season as he’s quickly become the favorite target of Martinez.
Defensively, the team gets one for the way they bounced back after the surprisingly bad performance against UCLA. Specifically, I thought PJ Smith and Daimion Stafford set a tone from the safety spot. Smith led the team in tackles while Stafford returned to his hard hitting ways (on back to back plays in the third quarter) to finish with seven tackles. Up front, the line was a lot better in containing the run game from Arkansas State and even got some pressure on Aplin. Smith and Stafford stood out the most, but hats off to the entire defense.
The Big Picture
This game won’t be remembered for how Nebraska won necessarily, but of the health concerns for Pelini. It was a stressful week to say the least for the team, which saw them on the defensive after the loss to UCLA, a big defection from the team in the middle of the week, and a somewhat contentious exchange or two at the Big Red Breakfast in Omaha on Friday morning with Papuchis addressing those in attendance. As I alluded to earlier—and to no sudden surprise of any—coaching major college football is a stressful gig. When it’s at Nebraska and everything is magnified, especially after losses, it has to be downright maddening at times. Unfortunately, it’s part of the gig and with the emphasis to win now; it probably won’t be changing any time soon. Pelini said he was fine after the game and would get back to work on Sunday.
Next up is Idaho State in the final non-conference matchup before Big Ten play starts. We still didn’t see Rex Burkhead against Arkansas State, but might against the Bengals as a tune up for Wisconsin on the 29th. If you’re a big fan of the power running game Nebraska displayed against the Red Wolves, you’re in luck—you’ll get a big dose of it next week too as the Huskers get ready to try and exact revenge on Wisconsin for last year’s loss and start the Big Ten slate off on the happy side of the win column.
After the way his team responded to the difficult week, I’d say Pelini can afford to take Sunday off to right the ship with his team looking to be back on track.
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