After an offseason full of claims that quarterback Taylor Martinez had made leaps and bounds as a passer from last year, the junior came out and put on an absolute show through the air with a career day in Nebraska's season opener.
Completing a staggering 26-of-34 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns, Martinez led the No. 17 Huskers to an impressive 49-20 victory over Southern Miss on Saturday. The Corona, Calif., native topped his previous career-best passing day back in 2010 against Oklahoma State (323 yards).
Overall, Nebraska (1-0) racked up 622 yards of total offense, 34 first downs and converted 11-of-14 third downs. On defense, NU regrouped after a rough start to hold the Golden Eagles (0-1) to just over 100 yards of offense after halftime.
"That's what I expected from Taylor," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I've been seeing a lot of good things. To be efficient, he's got to handle the offense well. I thought he directed things very well. He got us out of some bad plays and into some right plays, and for the most part made some good decisions For the most part, I thought he played very well. Very efficient and made good decisions. He distributed the ball well. I thought there were a lot of positives there."
The first half certainly had its share of momentum swings, though, as Southern Miss quickly answered a hot start by the Huskers to open the game.
Nebraska wasted no time getting things going when senior running back Rex Burkhead took a bobbled handoff a career-long 57 yards down the left sideline for the game's first touchdown just 1:18 into the first quarter.
However, Burkhead was sidelined for the rest of the game with an apparent knee injury a couple drives later, and Ameer Abdullah shouldered the bulk of the running game in his absence. Abdullah picked up the slack just fine, rushing for a team-high 83 yards on 15 carries.
After forcing a punt on Southern Miss' first possession, Martinez completed five of six passes capped off by a perfectly thrown ball to Kenny Bell on a corner route for a 26-yard touchdown.
Just as the game was starting to look like a potential blowout, though, USM's do-it-all receiver Tracey Lampley quickly answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 100-yard return for a score to make it 14-7 with just under seven minutes left in the opening quarter.
The Golden Eagles struck again on their following possession after the usually reliable Brett Maher came up short on a 44-yard field goal attempt. Behind three third-down conversions, quarterback Chris Campbell led an 11-play, 73-yard drive and hit Dominique Sullivan on a 24-yard scoring strike to tie it up.
With the early momentum all but erased, Martinez and the Huskers responded with a clutch 11-play drive of their own to reclaim the lead on a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake Long in the back of the end zone with 9:16 left to go in the second quarter.
At that point, Martinez had completed 12 of his first 14 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've been practicing all along like that against our defense, so we knew as an offense that our offense was really good, and we just had to keep that momentum going," Martinez said. "I don't anyone could stop us if we just keep going like that. We have so many dynamic athletes out there."
A bit later, Maher - the 2011 Big Ten Conference Kicker of the Year - shanked his second field goal try of the day wide left from 41 yards out, and Southern Miss then cut the lead to 21-17 on a 45-yard kick by Corey Acosta with just 1:44 left in the half.
With the ball at its own 23 and 1:37 remaining before halftime, Martinez put together one final gem of a drive to close out the half. After a nice 36-yard pass over the middle to Jamal Turner, Martinez floated a 29-yard touchdown to Steven Osborne, who made an impressive leaping grab over a defender.
The late score sent the Huskers into the locker room with a 28-17 lead. Martinez ended the half 18-of-23 passing for 247 yards and three touchdowns, while Nebraska put up 371 yards of total offense compared to 152 by Southern Miss.
Martinez's big day continued on into the second half, as he threw his fourth touchdown toss of the day on an 18-yard connection with tight end Kyler Reed over the middle with 7:36 left in the third.
As Nebraska's defense started to shore up its first half mistakes, the offense padded its lead with another touchdown with 2:44 left in the third quarter, as sophomore back Braylon Heard ran 10 yards up the middle to make it 42-17.
"I didn't tell them anything magical," Pelini said when asked what he told the team at halftime. "It was just keep doing what you're doing and stay the course. There were some things in that first half that we obviously would like back, but you stay the course. I felt real good about where we were and how we were playing. I had a lot of confidence that we were going to take care of business in the second half, and I think our players felt good about it to.
"I think they were mad at themselves and mad at the situation, because we kind of had control of the game and we let them back in, and we can't do that."
Acosta knocked in a 37-yard field goal with just over 13 minutes left in the game to make it 42-20, but an 11-yard touchdown pass from Martinez to Abdullah with eight minutes to play put the finishing touches on a dominant offensive performance by Nebraska.
The Huskers certainly weren't perfect, but with so many questions surrounding the team coming into Saturday's game, their performance at least gave them an idea of what they have to work with in 2012.
"I said going into the game, this would give us a good starting point," Pelini said. "That's all it was. That's what I just told the team, is it gives us an assessment of where we are and what we need to get better at. I thought there were a lot of good things out there. I thought there were a lot of positives, but there's a bunch we need to fix."