LAWRENCE, Kan. — Nebraska football players and coaches devoured behemoth burritos before boarding team buses early Saturday evening.
Nebraska earned its dinner with a hard-fought 31-17 triumph against Kansas. It was a meal fit for kings — kings of the Big 12 North Division, warts and all.
Oh, I know. A formality remains. Nebraska still must defeat Kansas State next Saturday to make it official. The Wildcats are a “rag-tag bunch,” according to coach Bill Snyder. But they’re scrappy and generally play intelligently. They’ll put up a decent fight but most likely come up short against a Husker outfit making an impressive late-season surge for the second straight year.
Nebraska is improving, folks. Coach Bo Pelini is smiling again instead of scowling. NU has its mojo back, said much-maligned Husker offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. No question, Big Red looks poised to finish atop the ordinary North Division, warts be darned.
“I think we looked tired today,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said after watching Kansas (5-5, 1-5 Big 12) gain 335 yards of total offense — 61 more than the Huskers had been allowing per game.
“It’s interesting,” Carl continued. “Bo and I were talking after the game. It’s getting late in the season. We have to start rethinking how we prepare the team physically. We have to make sure we’re fresh.”
Can Nebraska get fresh in a week?
“Yeah, you can,” Carl said. “I mean, our guys are in great condition. We’ll get fresh. We just have to change how we prepare a little bit.”
If I were a Nebraska coach, I wouldn’t change too much right now. Granted, the Huskers (7-3, 4-2) are far from perfect. But they won’t need perfection to defeat K-State (6-5, 4-3), which surrendered 433 yards and never found the end zone Saturday in a 38-12 home loss to Missouri (6-4, 2-4).
Maybe the magic in Manhattan has run its course. Not that Nebraska can take anything for granted. And that shouldn’t be a problem anyway. After all, it was only a few weeks ago when NU dropped back-to-back home games to unranked Texas Tech and Iowa State. The Huskers’ season seemed on the verge of unraveling.
Credit Bo Pelini and his staff for staying the course. They didn’t panic. If Nebraska does win the North Division, it will have earned it. The Huskers will have persevered through the pervasive negativity that settled into their own back yard after the discouraging home losses.
Turns out, Nebraska’s received a little boost from the man upstairs. Yes, Watson said, he’s used suggestions from Tom Osborne, including a couple Saturday. This isn’t a news flash, by the way. Osborne has helped Bo’s staff plenty in the past. Criminy, it’d be silly not to tap the brain of one of the brightest minds in the history of the game.
But it’s not like Osborne’s drawing up plays for Watson.
“He always leaves it for us to find,” Watson said. “That’s the beautiful part of Coach.”
Nebraska’s finding things, all right. The Huskers used the fullback in the power-I formation much more often in the past two weeks. Saturday, NU frequently used an offset “I.” The Huskers were effective with roll-out and play-action passes, including some slick play-action throws off an option look.
Here’s your news flash: Nebraska’s offense (and special teams) rescued its defense with two fourth-quarter touchdowns — aided by a pair of back-breaking Kansas penalties — after the Jayhawks took a 17-16 lead with 7:34 remaining. Imagine that.
Kansas senior quarterback Todd Reesing, who had struggled mightily in recent weeks, was his old slippery self at times. For instance, he showed great patience on QB draw plays, gaining yards in chunks and forcing the Husker defense to slow its pass rush.
“He’s as slippery as any guy I’ve ever faced,” Carl Pelini said. “And the thing is, they’re so good at the receiver positions, so you have to involve some guys in coverage. And then they flare the running back and take your linebacker out of there, and you’re left with six gaps and four defensive linemen.”
Kansas State quarterback Grant Gregory isn’t nearly as savvy or experienced or talented as Reesing. Gregory is a gamer, not much else. At the wideout positions, the Wildcats feature 5-foot-7 speedster Brandon Banks and a cast of ordinary guys. K-State’s gotten a lot of mileage out of big running back Daniel Thomas, but he may be wearing down (he managed only 79 yards on 23 carries Saturday).
Bottom line, Kansas State’s defense is nowhere near as stout as Nebraska’s. And the Husker offense might just be as good as the Wildcat crew.
Did I just write that?
Say this for Nebraska’s offense, especially the embattled line: It was slugging away and actually landing punches in the late rounds for the second straight week.
And who’s this Roy Helu guy?
“I really have to hand a lot to Roy,” Husker center Jacob Hickman said. “He ran his butt off. We tried making some holes for him. And those last two drives, he just ran like the Roy of old.”
Watson smiles now as he reflects on this season’s rough times, as if they occurred months ago.
“It’s going to make us a great team in the future,” he said of the adversity.
Nebraska is a decent team right now. Indeed, the Huskers appear to be on the brink of winning the North, warts and all.
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or email@example.com.