November 22, 2009

Huskers punch ticket to Dallas with 17-3 win

Game Ticker | Box Score

There was no trophy presentation or any official post-game ceremony following Nebraska's 17-3 win over Kansas State on Saturday, even if it clinched a Big 12 North Division championship.

Instead, the Huskers briefly celebrated on their own in the locker room. While the win was obviously a huge step in the right direction towards rebuilding the program, the Huskers are looking at it merely as an expected steppingstone for even bigger accomplishments this season.

"That was a good win, a good win for the program," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm happy for our football team. We've kind of been through a lot up to this point. They persevered. I still think our best football is out there for us to play, but we have to keep working to get better.

"We'll enjoy tonight, but we have a short week ahead of us and a heck-of-a challenge at the end of this week, with a short week for us and a long week for (Colorado). It's an accomplishment to win the Big 12 North, but we want to make sure that we turn our focus now to Colorado."

While it may not have come with all the hoopla that followed NU's last North title in 2006, when the team hoisted a Big 12 North trophy at midfield following its win over Colorado in 2006, the Huskers still came up with a big time victory they desperately needed to keep their season goals in tact.

In a game where all the scoring was over by the first two minutes of the third quarter, Nebraska was able to grind the clock on offense and shut down Kansas State's offense with the help of a couple key turnovers in potential scoring situations for the Wildcats.

Junior running back Roy Helu once again carried the bulk of the load for NU's offense, picking up 95 yards on 26 carries, including an 14-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that ended up clinching the win. Helu also became the 29th Husker to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark for a season, as he now has 1,057 yards on the year.

Junior quarterback Zac Lee again had an up-and-down performance, but he ended up doing enough to lead the Huskers to their fourth straight victory. Lee finished the night completing 13-of-19 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"We knew it'd be a slugfest," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "There's going to be field position, running the football, play-action pass - it was just going to be that kind of game. We both run similar styles of offense now because of where we're at. It kind of turned out the way we thought it would. We knew it was going to be another one of those 15-round fights."

It seemed like Nebraska dominated both sides of the football during the first half, but the scoreboard at halftime made it seem otherwise.

The Huskers out-gained the Wildcats in total yards and held a six-minute advantage in time of possession, but missed chances in the red zone left them with just a 10-3 lead at the end of the half.

After Kansas State marched down the field and got a field goal on its opening possession, the Huskers came a few inches short of getting a touchdown on their first drive when Lee overthrew a wide open Mike McNeill on a what would have been a 16-yard scoring pass.

Instead, Nebraska had to settle for a field goal after a 16-play drive that lasted 7 minutes, 37 seconds. The drive marked season-highs in both plays and time of possession.

On their next drive to start the second quarter, the Huskers finally got into the end zone when Lee hit McNeill over the middle on a 17-yard pass with a little more than 12 minutes remaining in the half.

The play was actually the exact same play NU called when McNeill caught a touchdown against Virginia Tech that was called back on a holding penalty.

"I had forgotten what the end zone felt like," said McNeill, who has four touchdown catches this season compared to six last year. "It was nice to get a taste again."

Nebraska's defense continued to hold strong, but the offense missed another golden chance to put more points on the board when Lee threw a pass into traffic and was picked off at the goal line by KSU's Tysyn Hartman, who returned it to the Wildcat 42.

Senior safety Larry Asante kept the turnover from being too costly, though, as he returned the favor by picking off KSU quarterback Grant Gregory on the ensuing drive. With neither offense able to capitalize, the Huskers held a seven-point lead going into halftime.

Nebraska came out with an aggressive approach to open the third quarter, as Lee hit junior wide receiver Niles Paul on a 47-yard pass on a third-and-1 to move the ball to the KSU 14-yard line. Unlike previous drives, the Huskers made sure to take advantage this time, as Helu scampered 14-yards around the right side for the touchdown to give NU a 17-3 lead.

Kansas State came about a foot away from answering on its next possession, but Asante made another huge play by forcing running back Keithen Valentine to fumble at the goal line after it looked like Valentine was bound to score on a 12-yard reception over the middle.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara recovered the fumble, and that play would turn out to be the closest the Wildcats would come to making it a game.

Nebraska won't get much time to celebrate Saturday's win, as it must come back and get ready for a showdown with Colorado on a short week with just five days to prepare. The win over the Wildcats obviously accomplished a major goal for the Huskers, but in terms of the rest of the season, it was only the next step.

"This was just goal number one on our team goals, it's not like you only have one objective," senior center Jacob Hickman said. "You can't overlook Colorado; they are a good team who plays hard. We have to go into that next week and we have the championship the week after. We all have high expectations and we expect to work hard and go out there to do everything we can to win the game."

- Robin Washut

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