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Colorado vs. Nebraska, 9/8/18

Aaron Williams (24) and Tyrin Ferguson (43) react after Nebraska safety Antonio Reed (25) was penalized for unnecessary roughness on Colorado wide receiver Jay MacIntyre (right) with little more than a minute left in the game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The penalty gave the Buffaloes a first down, and they scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.

It was a question raised during the week leading up to Nebraska-Colorado.

Would Nebraska be at a disadvantage having not played a game while Colorado was coming off a 45-13 win against Colorado State?

Afterward, the Huskers didn't want to make any excuses following a 33-28 defeat, which included an early 14-0 deficit.

"It can go either way," senior safety Tre Neal said. "It would have been great if we could have gotten some of the kinks out, some of the juices out just from the beginning, but these guys were ready. We had two great weeks of practice. Once we get out there … you got to make plays."

Said junior wide receiver Mike Williams, "I wouldn't say it hurt (us), but the old saying (is) the biggest improvement comes (between) the first and second and they had that first game under their belt. I wouldn't really make that as an excuse but we just got to be better."

If there were kinks and first-game jitters to iron out, Colorado capitalized on them. Nebraska fumbled the ball on its first two drives, and the Buffaloes turned them into points.

Nebraska quickly bounced back, scoring on its next drive. But mistakes — 11 penalties, dropped passes, a missed field goal, etc. — continued throughout the game.

"I’d never make an excuse, but having a game last week certainly, probably would’ve helped the way we came out and played," NU coach Scott Frost said. "It is what it is, those were the cards dealt to us. We can’t turn the ball over in our first two possessions. We’re going in to score in the first, and turned it over to them, and it’s 7-0 them instead of us having the lead. And then defense has got to step up, if you spot any decent team 14 points it’s hard to come back. I was really pleased with how our kids responded to that situation and didn’t win.”

Sophomore defensive end Ben Stille was not interested in making excuses, either.

"It's just another game at Memorial Stadium," he said. "I don't think it was that big a difference on us winning or losing the game."

Sack lunch: Sophomore cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said the defensive front was having a party Saturday.

The Huskers finished with seven sacks, their most in a game since a 2013 contest against Michigan State. Khalil Davis (two sacks), Freedom Akinmoladun (1.5), Luke Gifford (1.5), Tyrin Ferguson (one) and Stille (one) each got to CU quarterback Steven Montez, who was hurried on several other pass attempts.

"I got to get them credit, really getting after the quarterback today," Bootle said. "I was happy to see them out there really having, really having a party around the ball."

It was a night-and-day difference compared to 2017, when the Huskers finished with 14 sacks for the season.

"It's not really a whole lot different I would say schematically," Stille said of the difference between 2018 and 2017. "It's how we're doing it, how we're rushing the passer, being smart about it."

Buffalo roams: Colorado sophomore Laviska Shenault was thorn in the Huskers' side all afternoon, finishing with 10 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. He caught the game-winning touchdown with 66 seconds remaining and also rushed twice out of the wildcat formation on successful fourth-down plays, including a first-quarter touchdown plunge. 

"He played multiple positions," Bootle said. "You play multiple positions, I think that says something about you as a player. I got to give him his credit. He played a good game."

D-line flashes depth: Nebraska’s starting defensive line on Saturday constituted senior Mick Stoltenberg between sophomore Ben Stille and senior Freedom Akinmoladun.

The starters, though, were hardly more than a trivia question. Nebraska played at least nine players up front, also using Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Deontre Thomas, Damion Daniels, Peyton Newell, DaiShon Neal.

“It was a little weird, honestly, but it was good,” Stoltenberg said. “A lot of guys got their feet wet. Damion Daniels, the first play he was in there, he knocked the center back pretty good. The great thing is they’re all excited. Everyone wants a piece.”

Work to do against run despite gaudy numbers: Stoltenberg said his side of the ball still had plenty to clean up in its run defense even though NU allowed only 44 net yards on 35 attempts.

“I know the rushing yards look like they didn’t really get a lot, but there were a few inside plays that bled for a few and I think (seven) sacks skewed the numbers a little bit,” he said.

Take out Steven Montez’s stats — he lost 43 yards and finished with minus-7 net on 11 carries — and NU still allowed just 51 yards on 24 carries (2.1 per carry).

Running backs rev up: While Adrian Martinez dazzled with his legs, Nebraska’s running backs put on a performance that bodes well for the Huskers’ ability to run the ball going forward.

Greg Bell, Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington combined for 35 carries, 198 yards and a touchdown, giving NU a balance in a run game it hasn’t seen in several years.

Bell led the way. The junior transfer from Arizona Western had 13 carries for 104 yards, including the day’s longest rush. That was a 45-yarder straight up the middle in the first half. He also broke off a 20-yarder in the second half.

Devine Ozigbo, praised by coaches for reshaping his body, added 14 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown. The senior drew heavy applause nearly every time he touched the ball.

And freshman Maurice Washington got eight carries for 34 yards, showing flashes of the elusiveness that coaches raved over throughout fall camp.

That trio combined to lose just 4 yards on their combined carries.

Each man was a factor in the passing game as well, combining for six catches and 36 yards.

The effort helped Nebraska to 329 rushing yards, the team’s most in a game since 2014. It was NU’s first 300-yard rushing game since 2016.

Linebackers run free: Nebraska’s rejuvenated defensive effort led to four linebackers being the unit’s four leading tacklers.

Junior inside linebacker Mo Barry led the way, finishing with 12 stops and one tackle for loss. Senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford added 11 stops, 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. Junior OLB Tyrin Ferguson had 10 tackles a sack and two tackles for loss in his first start, and senior Dedrick Young finished with nine tackles and two tackles for loss.

Big-time production.

“We knew we could do it. That’s just Coach Chinander believing in us, and we believe in the back end (of the defense),” Gifford said. “They can lock it up back there so we have the ability to pin our ears back and get after it.”

Freshmen get feet wet: Five true freshmen got their first taste of college football as Huskers on Saturday.

Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, of course, got the headlines. Running back Maurice Washington also made a couple of plays.

Barret Pickering started his career by hitting all four of his extra points, but misfiring on a 43-yard field goal.

Defensive back Cam Taylor saw action in Nebraska’s defensive sub-packages, as well as on special teams.

Outside linebacker Caleb Tannor also played, getting time on NU’s special teams units.

Dixon did not play: Ole Miss transfer outside linebacker Breon Dixon did not appear to play in the season-opener. Dixon is one of several players who have a redshirt year available and will have specific usage plans to potentially preserve that year of eligibility, Frost said during camp.

Other notable non-freshmen who did not see the field in any capacity include running backs Jaylin Bradley and Mikale Wilbon, and wide receiver Jaron Woodyard.

 

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Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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