LINCOLN – What a difference a year makes.
Nebraska fans were anxious to see what the Husker offense would look like in year two under offensive coordinator Tim Beck. If one game is any indicator, the answer is “better.” Maybe much better.
Nebraska rolled to 632 total yards in the Huskers the 49-20 season opening victory over Southern Miss. By halftime the Huskers had 371 yards, surpassing their four quarter total from last year’s season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The offensive explosion started early. Rex Burkhead turned a bobbled handoff into a 57-yard touchdown run – his career long – on the fourth play of the season. Two series later, however, Burkhead was on the bench with an MCL sprain in his left knee. He didn’t return to the game.
“He’s day to day, week-to-week,” Pelini said, adding that it was the lowest grade sprain. “I don’t think it’s anything long term. He’ll be fine.”
The offense kept rolling in Burkhead’s absence, thanks in large part to the arm of Taylor Martinez. The junior quarterback turned in perhaps the best passing game of his career, going 26-for-34 for 354 yards and five touchdowns. The 354 yards set a new career high while the five touchdowns matched his previous best against Oklahoma State in 2010.
Nebraska’s deep backfield filled in admirably for Burkhead. Ameer Abdullah led the Huskers with 15 carries for 83 yards and added a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Braylon Heard added 34 yards and a touchdown while true freshman Imani Cross had an impressive final drive, picking up 62 yards on 11 carries.
Defensively, Nebraska was slow to find its footing. Southern Miss had early success on the ground, racking up 60 yards rushing in the first quarter as Nebraska was gashed for a few big gains early. Pelini said all week, and reiterated following the game, that Nebraska was in the dark regarding Southern Mississippi’s offense, but the Blackshirts tightened up in the second half holding the Eagles to 108 yards and 3 points. Senior linebacker Will Compton led the Huskers with 12 tackles.
The bigger issue for the Huskers may have been special teams. Wide receiver Tracey Lampley returned a kickoff 100 yards for touchdown while the Big Ten’s reigning kicker and punter of the year, Brett Maher, missed a pair of field goals and shanked a 21-yard punt early in the second half.
Pelini said the struggles on special teams were unexpected given Nebraska’s strength there last year.
“We didn’t execute very well,” Pelini said. “There are a lot of things we need to shore up in the special teams area, but I do know this: everything is fixable.”
The win extended Nebraska’s nation-leading streak of consecutive wins in season openers to 27 games.