LINCOLN — By halftime of Nebraska’s 42-13 win over Arkansas State on Saturday, the outcome of the game was never really in doubt. The status of the Huskers head coach was.
Bo Pelini didn’t return to the sidelines for the second half and was taken to a Lincoln hospital for what ESPN2 reported were “flu-like” symptoms shortly after halftime. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis took over on-field coaching duties. After the game, Pelini released a statement saying he was “fine” and expected to be back to work on Sunday.
It was an emotional scene after the game in what had already been an emotional week for the Huskers.
“Bo is as close to me as anybody,” Papuchis said. “My initial reaction was more as a friend than a business colleague. I kind of had to compose myself for a second. At the end of the day he would want nothing other than for us to go out and perform as well as we possibly could.”
One week after the humbling loss to UCLA, Nebraska came pretty close.
The Huskers jumped out to a 28-3 lead in the first half behind a pair of touchdowns from sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah and two touchdown passes from Taylor Martinez to Kenny Bell. Martinez was 8-for-8 passing in the first half and finished 13-for-14, upping his season completion percentage to 70.8 percent.
Defensively, the Huskers were on their heels early against Arkansas State’s hyper-speed offense. The Red Wolves ran 24 plays in the first quarter and crossed into Nebraska territory twice, but the Huskers’ defense held and adjusted to the furious pace. Over the next three quarters, Arkansas State managed just 184 yards on 45 plays. Coming into the game, the Red Wolves were averaging nearly 575 yards on 89 plays.
Papuchis said he was pleased with the progress Nebraska made defensively this week, but credit the Huskers’ punishing ground game with helping to slow the Arkansas State offense down by simply keeping it off the field.
Nebraska ran the ball 59 times for 347 yards on Saturday, holding a nearly 10 minute edge in time of possession. Abdullah, as he did last week, set career highs in both carries (30) and yards (167) in Rex Burkhead’s absence. Sophomore Braylon Heard (10 carries, 56 yards) and freshman Imani Cross (7 carries, 66 yards) both averaged better than five yards per carry. Martinez carried 11 times for 54 yards and became just the second Husker ever after Eric Crouch to surpass 2,000 yards rushing and 4,000 yards passing in a career.
“It was a game where we thought we were able to establish ourselves in the running game,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We were going to try and stick to it to eat up some clock and stay on the field a little longer.”
Without Pelini on the sideline – he didn’t speak to the team at halftime – Nebraska stumbled a bit in the second half. Martinez was stripped while going back to pass near his own end zone, resulting in the only Arkansas State touchdown of the day. Nebraska fumbled twice more in the quarter, one a questionable muffed punt call, but was able to hold Arkansas State to just a field goal.
With the lead down to 28-13, the Huskers stayed committed to the ground game. Nebraska didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, rushing 18 times for 141 yards. With 12:50 left in the game Cross scored the first touchdown of his career on a two-yard plunge and Martinez added an 18-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring for Nebraska.
After the game Beck and Papuchis handled the majority of the questions on Pelini.
“I’ve known Bo my whole life,” Beck said before being unable to finish. Both he and Papuchis took a moment to compose themselves.
“(Bo’s) a fighter and one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met,” Beck said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was up watching film tonight.”