BOULDER, Colo.— Red-clad fans were screaming outside the Husker locker room when victory was secured. A guy in a Tommie Frazier jersey kept leaning over a dividing rope as players passed. “Bring on Texas!” he yelled. “Bring on Texas!”
And then Bo Pelini came out to speak. Let’s just say the Husker coach wasn’t quite as enthused.
“We played sloppy football,” Pelini said of his team’s 28-20 win against Colorado on Friday. “We didn’t play to our standards in what we showed out there for four quarters today.”
The Husker coach wasn’t impressed with much. And then someone asked him about Rex Burkhead.
“I thought Rex played outstanding football,” Pelini said. “He ran hard. That’s just who he is. I’m proud of him.”
Yes, when the game was in the balance and the fans wearing black and gold were screaming the loudest, it was the true freshman running back that Nebraska kept handing the ball.
“He’s given us a lot of thump,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.
And Friday, the Huskers needed that thump.
Nebraska had amassed 130 yards and eight first downs through three quarters. But thanks to a special-teams touchdown (Niles Paul’s punt return) and a defensive touchdown (Matt O’Hanlon’s interception), the Huskers led 21-14 early in the fourth quarter.
And that’s when Burkhead took over on a crucial drive in which the Huskers went 80 yards in 13 plays, taking almost seven minutes off the clock.
“They got their horns out and rolled on us a little bit,” Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said.
Sixty-five of those yards came on the ground and 55 belonged to Burkhead.
“There was a consensus between players and coaches that we wanted to run a little inside zone and (coaches) really let us do that the last (scoring) drive, and that’s when we had success,” senior center Jacob Hickman said.
Most of it involved Burkhead, who kept pushing for extra yards even when they didn’t seem to be there. He carried the ball nine times on the drive and finished it with a 7-yard score that broke the Buffaloes’ back.
Burkhead finished with a career-high 18 carries and 100 yards, toting the ball four more times than starter Roy Helu, who had 54 yards and a fumble.
“He’s been practicing really well. He’s been eager,” running backs coach Tim Beck said of Burkhead. “He’s got fresh legs, and he just kind of saw it. He was able to get to the holes a little quicker than Roy was. Roy has had three grueling weeks, 20-some carries a game. He did well, but I was pleased with what Rex did so I stayed with him. He was crisper and sharper today.”
It wasn’t just Burkhead’s fresh legs, Hickman said. The kid’s got a lot of heart, too.
“You can have all the fresh legs in the world and you can go down,” Hickman said. “The kid’s got nothing but heart, and he just fights for every yard, and that’s why you like to block for him.”
It was a great performance by Burkhead. Pelini would not say that about his team.
Pelini happy with win, but not NU's play
“We were a couple missed field goals away from losing the football game,” Pelini said. “We’re a lot better than what we showed out there today.”
Indeed, the Buffs twice missed field goals in the second half, and had 20 first downs to Nebraska’s 14. Colorado also outyarded Nebraska 403-217 — though 56 of CU’s yards came on a touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
Perhaps Texas players watching Friday’s game were not exactly quaking in their boots. But then they should know this Husker team hasn’t been about winning pretty. It’s just about winning.
“The thing is, we’re still waiting to see our best ball,” Hickman said. “Sometimes we go out there and just show great ability and a team effort. And sometimes we go and shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s been a season-long problem of those little things getting to us. I’d love to see if we don’t do those things.”
Added Hickman: “I don’t like being in close games, but as long as we keep coming out on the winning end, I’m not upset about it.”
Yes, the bottom line is Nebraska won its fifth straight game and locked up win No. 9 for the second year in a row. The Huskers haven’t had back-to-back nine-win seasons since 2000-2001.
“A year from now no one will remember the score. They’ll just remember that it was win No. 9,” Beck said. “I’m not jumping up for joy, but it was a win. It was a short week (of practice), on the road, in the altitude, all the things you could talk about. Our kids responded.”
Reach Brian Christopherson at email@example.com or 473-7439.