MANHATTAN, Kan. — Nebraska reserve I-back Quentin Castille rumbled up the middle late in Saturday’s game and lowered his shoulder into Kansas State defensive back Otis Johnson, who went down in a heap.
Johnson remained on the turf for a few moments, in La-La land, gathering himself as if he were a boxer who had just been knocked to the canvas. Those hearty Big Red fans who made the trip here were thrilled by Castille’s display of raw power, not to mention their beloved team’s big lead on the scoreboard. Somebody in the press box remarked that Nebraska had its swagger back.
Husker reserve I-back Marcus Mendoza fumbled away the ball on the next play. Never mind.
Oh, make no mistake, this was an impressive triumph for Nebraska. Mendoza’s fumble obviously was inconsequential except that you could say it was a gentle reminder that the Huskers remain at least a few steps from having all of their swagger back, whatever “swagger” means anyway.
We simply must remember Nebraska is still in the early stages of a major reclamation project. That we know. But perhaps we need those gentle reminders, especially after games like this, a 56-28 victory in which Big Red rolled up 610 yards of total offense compared with K-State’s 247.
Nebraska improved to 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12 with its fourth win in the past five games. You have to figure a surging Husker team would be awfully enticing for Gator Bowl officials who ultimately might have to choose between an 8-4 Big Red outfit and Notre Dame limping in at 7-5. We’ll see. Whatever the case, this season seems to be shaping up as a promising beginning to the Bo Pelini era.
To be sure, the Huskers have proven to be a resilient bunch, bouncing back nicely after blowout losses to Missouri and Oklahoma. We saw the resiliency again Saturday, as the Huskers shrugged off a slew of injury issues and senior linebacker Cody Glenn’s suspension while jackhammering a beleaguered Kansas State outfit in obvious need of a new direction.
Nebraska entered the game without injured starting right tackle Lydon Murtha. Murtha’s replacement, Jaivorio Burkes, went out with an injury after the first series, thrusting redshirt freshman Marcel Jones into the picture. The Huskers entered the game basically planning to use six offensive linemen. With Burkes out, make that five, and pass the athletic tape.
While you’re at it, throw some of that tape to Mike Ekeler, Nebraska’s first-year linebackers coach. Throw him a bouquet, too, because Ekeler coaxed a herculean effort Saturday out of what remained of his linebacker crew.
Glenn, the team’s third-leading tackler, is suspended indefinitely. Starting middle linebacker Phillip Dillard and top backup outside linebacker Matt Holt were unavailable because of injuries. Excuse me if I’m missing anyone. Yes, pass that athletic tape, and some Rolaids.
And get that Matthew May kid ready to play.
“He’s been a linebacker all of three days,” Ekeler said with a smile after the demolition was complete.
You can’t make up this stuff.
May, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Imperial, learned Tuesday afternoon he was moving from safety to weakside linebacker. Perhaps not coincidentally, Glenn’s suspension also was announced Tuesday afternoon. Whatever. This much is clear: The 6-foot-1, 195-pound May hadn’t played any regular downs this season. But there he was early in the second quarter Saturday, blitzing Josh Freeman on a first-and-10 and getting credit for a sack after the ball slipped from Freeman’s grasp as he tried to throw.
“I didn’t deserve (the sack),” May said. “I’m still kicking myself about that play. I just got in there and all of a sudden the ball was right in front of me, and I couldn’t get a hold of it.”
“A lot of excitement,” he said. “I was moving a lot faster than what my mind was thinking.”
It was an exciting night for three Nebraska walk-on linebackers.
May, playing exclusively in the nickel package (about 15 snaps total), finished with three tackles. Junior walk-on Colton Koehler of Harvard, playing middle linebacker in the base package, led NU with eight stops. Senior walk-on Tyler Wortman of Grand Island, playing almost every snap regardless of package, recorded five tackles.
Scholarship sophomore Blake Lawrence also had five stops from his weakside linebacker spot.
“If you get about anybody in there willing to play hard for these coaches, it’ll go all right,” said Lawrence, giving a nod to the soundness of the schemes.
Things went awfully well for Nebraska on this chilly Saturday. As the clock ticked toward the final gun, and Husker fans chanted “Go Big Red,” it felt a little like the program’s glory days.
Of course, Nebraska remains a ways from the nation’s elite. But this team’s resiliency is impressive — indeed, a sign of a program pushing in the right direction.
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.