It had been a bizarre and emotional afternoon but now John Papuchis had time for a smile and a question.
“Did that ball hit Ameer?” he wondered after Nebraska’s 42-13 win over Arkansas State.
The ball did not hit Ameer Abdullah, no. But the men with the whistles had said otherwise, saying a punt bounced off the sophomore’s foot. With that gift, Arkansas State had it at Nebraska’s 15-yard line, posing a threat that had seemed most unlikely until that very moment.
The Red Wolves had already used another turnover to carve a touchdown off Nebraska’s halftime lead. And of greater concern, Husker coach Bo Pelini had left the stadium, making an ambulance trip to the hospital for health reasons.
What was a Husker defender — just seven days removed from 653 yards allowed — to think?
“All right, let them have the ball,” senior safety P.J. Smith said of his thoughts. “Let’s just go out there and kick their ass, bottom line.”
Defensive coordinator Papuchis, serving as the acting head coach on the field in Pelini’s absence, exhorted his defense with as much enthusiasm as he had all season.
“I thought that was a huge point in the game,” he said. “At the time … the momentum felt for a second like it was swinging against us.”
First down: rush over left end. No gain.
Second down: incomplete.
Third down: same as second down.
Arkansas State took the field goal. Nebraska took the momentum.
“We had our backs to the wall,” said senior safety Daimion Stafford. “It was either going to be them or us (that broke). And it wasn’t going to be us.”
The Huskers would coast after that stand in the third quarter, scoring two more touchdowns and shutting out the Red Wolves the rest of the way.
What followed was an unusual and, in certain cases, emotional postgame.
Pelini was not there to field questions, but issued a statement saying precautionary tests on him had checked out fine.
"I plan to be back at work tomorrow,” said the fifth-year Husker head coach, who was released from the hospital Saturday afternoon, according to a source. “I’m proud of our team and coaching staff for the way they responded this afternoon.”
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne issued a brief summary on Pelini's health scare, and then Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck fielded questions side by side.
“I’ve known Bo my whole life …” Beck said, his voice trailing off, taken by emotion.
"My initial reaction was more as a friend than a business colleague, so I kind of had to compose myself for a second," Papuchis said.
Papuchis realized Pelini wasn’t himself early in the second quarter. The head coach wasn’t as vocal as usual.
At halftime, Beck and Papuchis both talked with Pelini as medical staff looked him over.
The team was told at halftime about Pelini’s health issues, though the head coach himself did not speak to them.
"I thought our players handled the situation really well,” Beck said. “I didn't handle it as well as I should have. They were better.”
Nebraska had built up a comfortable lead in the first half while Pelini was around, aided by Abdullah, some big pass plays and a failed Arkansas State trick play that ended in an interception by Smith.
It was 28-3 at the break and sophomore Kenny Bell already had two touchdowns — the first from 42 yards, the second from 25.
Taylor Martinez, who completed 13 of 14 passes on the day, had already thrown for 150 of his 180 yards on just eight passes by the half.
But the turnover bug hit Nebraska in the third quarter. Martinez fumbled the ball when he was blindsided on a sack, and the Red Wolves fell on the ball in the end zone.
Martinez lost the handle on the ball on the next series, too. Then came the botched call in which officials said a punt hit off Abdullah’s foot.
Because of all this, Arkansas State scored 10 points despite gaining just 15 yards of offense and no first downs in the third quarter.
But the Husker offense kept grinding out yards on the ground, giving the Red Wolves a heavy dose of power toss plays.
With Rex Burkhead still sidelined, Abdullah carried it 30 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He did not lose a yard on one carry all day.
By game’s end Nebraska held a yardage advantage of 527-286.
Certainly it was an encouraging performance for a defense that had given up the second-most yards in Husker history one week ago in the 36-30 loss to UCLA.
“I’m not a huge stat guy in terms of that being the only measure of success, but to hold that offense to under 300 yards and six offensive points … I thought they played a very good football game,” Papuchis said.
Nebraska’s defense actually performed at its best in the second half, despite the turmoil surrounding Pelini.
Of Arkansas State’s 286 yards, just 89 came in the final two quarters.
First-year Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said it was no surprise the team and assistant coaches on the staff came together so well even with their leader gone.
“It’s just the way he prepares us,” Kaczenski said. “The way he runs his operation, everybody has a voice and everybody has an obligation and responsibilities. It’s unfortunate he couldn’t be there, but I know Bo has confidence in us just like we have confidence in him.”