SAN DIEGO— It was an imaginative Husker offense and the same old Blackshirts. Put them together and pass the Arizona Wildcats the Excedrin.
The Huskers caused a night full of headaches for their Holiday Bowl foe, blasting the Wildcats from the opening kickoff in a 33-0 win Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
When it was over, offensive players took turns hugging their coordinator Shawn Watson. Criticized at times this season, Watson’s group shined in its last dance of 2009.
“Honestly, we had a chance to get healthy, we had a chance to get back to doing the things we like to do,” Watson said. “We’ve been through heck. There’s a lot of things we obviously can’t say because we’re in the midst of a season, but these kids persevered.”
What heck have the Huskers been through on offense? It was learned after the win that junior quarterback Zac Lee had been playing with a severe injury in his throwing elbow for most of the season. Lee will have surgery on a tendon in his elbow next week.
“I just didn’t want it to be an excuse,” Lee said.
No excuses were needed for Wednesday’s performance.
We already knew Nebraska’s defense was the real deal. It was the Husker offense that will have people talking.
There were “Wildcat” formations, five receivers on a fourth-and-1 play, Ndamukong Suh at fullback, Rex Burkhead in the slot as a wide receiver, a reverse to Niles Paul, a 74-yard bomb. It was a bucket of creativity that hadn’t been seen from an offense that came into the game ranked 102nd nationally.
It helps when your defense gives you the ball on the 5-yard line. That’s how this one started.
After Eric Martin blew up the Wildcat return man on the opening kickoff, Husker safety Matt O’Hanlon intercepted a poorly thrown third-down pass by Nick Foles and juked his way 37 yards to the Arizona 5.
Lee — who threw for 173 yards and ran for 65 — scored two plays later from 4 yards, racing to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown just 75 seconds into the game.
That’s all these Blackshirts would need. Foles was thoroughly confused by the swarming Big Red defense all night.
Arizona’s first downs in the first half: 1. Arizona’s first downs after three quarters: 3.
“We wanted to definitely put a stamp on this game and realize Nebraska was the best team on this field,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “We wanted to do that. As a team, both sides of the ball, especially on offense, that’s the firepower that I know. That’s what we had at the beginning of the year. That offense, they have a lot of young guys, so they’re going to be good.”
Nebraska outyarded the Wildcats 202-32 in the first half, and no drive was more impressive than an 82-yard march early in the second quarter that made it 17-0.
Most eye-catching on the drive was the Huskers’ use of the “Wildcat” formation — in which running backs Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson were the only ones in the backfield.
On a second-and-14 play from their 14, the Huskers snapped the ball directly to Burkhead, who tore through the middle of the Wildcat defense for 34 yards.
Fittingly, the true freshman finished off the drive scoring from 5 yards on a direct snap from the “Wildcat.”
“They like 22,” Husker offensive line coach Barney Cotton said of his line’s fondness for blocking for Burkhead, who had 89 rushing yards.“They like Roy (Helu) and the other guys as well. But 22 is a pretty special young guy.”
The Huskers also battered the Wildcats on multiple occasions with zone-read runs by Lee — who ran as determined as he has all season.
“I’m so proud of the offense, just how hard they worked through the season. Even in their down times, they were still grinding at it,” Husker defensive tackle Jared Crick said.
Nebraska wasn’t always the master of finishing off drives, but Alex Henery kicked four field goals, including three of more than 40 yards.
Any doubt about the game disappeared when Lee pump-faked, then hit Paul on a 74-yard touchdown pass with 3:39 left in the third quarter to make it 33-0.
Paul spiked the ball and flexed his muscles as a drizzle fell from the sky. A flag flew. No one in Husker red cared.
After the game, Pelini joked with Paul that such a flag would never happen again, right? “No, sir,” Paul said.
The occasional sin of 15 yards can be forgiven when domination is obtained.
Reach Brian Christopherson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 473-7439