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October 22, 2011

Huskers cruise to 41-14 win over Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS - It was a game that many considered an extension of Nebraska's bye week, and the final score only verified that sentiment.

When all was said and done, the Huskers had put up 515 yards of total offense to Minnesota's 254 in what ended in a 41-14 blowout win Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Junior running back Rex Burkhead was his usual productive self, racking up 117 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries to lead the way for NU's most dominant offensive performance of the season.

Defensively, Nebraska didn't allow the Gophers, who dropped to 1-6 with the loss, to do anything at all with the football. The one chance UM had coming was for quarterback MarQueis Gray to have a big game, but he was held to just 9-of-18 passing for only 122 yards and 67 yards on 17 rushes.

The win marked the Huskers' first Big Ten Conference road victory and their 11th straight over Minnesota.

"I thought we played a good football game," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I thought we came out fast. I thought we did a lot of good things on both sides of the football, special teams. There are still a lot of things we can do better. I thought it was a pretty complete effort, especially in the first half."

Nebraska struck first with a 22-yard field goal by Brett Maher on its first offensive possession, but it was more of a win for the Gophers considering the Huskers had marched inside the UM 5-yardline before settling for the kick.

On the next drive, Nebraska got a bit of lucky bounce on a fourth down play, as a bad pitch by Martinez ended up bouncing up field and past the first down marker. By rule, the spot is marked where the ball goes out of bounds, and a fumble on a lateral is allowed to be advanced.

With the drive kept alive, Nebraska finally got in the end zone on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Martinez to fullback Tyler Legate, who was wide open in the right flat.

Following another three-and-out by Minnesota, the Huskers struck again on an 82-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman receiver Kenny Bell on a reverse around the left end. The play was blocked to perfection, and Bell showed great balance along the sideline to stay in bounds and take in for the score.

The play was the longest touchdown run ever by a Nebraska freshman and the team's longest run since Cory Ross went 86 yards against Missouri in 2006.

Nebraska added another 25-yard field goal by Maher on its next drive to make it 20-0 with a little under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, and then bumped the lead up to 27 points when safety Austin Cassidy scooped up a fumble by Gray and took it into the end zone on the first play of the Gophers' ensuing drive.

The play marked the Huskers' first fumble recovery for a touchdown since Daniel Bullocks returned one against Wake Forest in 2005. It was also NU's last defensive score since Cassidy took back an interception last year against Iowa State.

"I was in the right place at the right time, but it's pretty cool," Cassidy said. "Helping the team is the most important thing."

Minnesota had a chance to put points on the board when it marched all the way down to the NU 17-yard line, but came away with nothing when Gray was stuffed for a 10-yard loss by linebacker Lavonte David on a fourth down conversion attempt.

Nebraska took it from there and marched right back down the field on a 14-play, 73-yard drive that ate up 5:35 and was capped off with a 4-yard touchdown run by Burkhead on a fourth-and-goal to make it 34-0 with 33 seconds left in the half.

The game pretty much went into cruise control from there. Minnesota finally got on the board on a 5-yard run by Gray that was set up by a 53-yard pass to Da'Jon McKnight off a double-reverse flea-flicker.

The momentum was short lived for the Gophers, as the Huskers came right back with a 17-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard scoring run up the middle by freshman Aaron Green to make it a 41-7 game.

Redshirt freshman Brion Carnes eventually came in for his first playing time since the Wyoming game in the fourth quarter, as Martinez ended the day 13-of-22 passing for 162 yards and a touchdown to go along with 52 yards on 10 carries.

The competition should pick up significantly for Nebraska next week, as the Huskers play host to Michigan State in a pivotal Legends Division showdown that could end up punching a ticket to the Big Ten Championship for either team.

For now, though, Nebraska knows that it's arguably played its best its best football over the past six quarters.

"I think we've come a long way, "Pelini said. "When we've struggled, we've been our own worst enemy. We do our thing the right way - we communicate, we play the way we've been taught - we're pretty good."

New defensive starters have solid debuts

Saturday marked the starting debuts for two Nebraska defenders, as sophomore cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Rome opened the game on the field for the first time in their careers.

Overall, Pelini said he was pleased with the performances of Jean-Baptiste and Rome, saying both players stepped up and held their own against the Gophers.

Jean-Baptiste had three tackles in the game, and surprisingly Minnesota didn't test him with hardly any passes at all in the game. Rome had just one tackle in the win, but he and the rest of the defensive line helped hold UM to just 132 rushing yards in the first game since senior Jared Crick's season ending injury.

Pelini said his initial impressions of Jean-Baptiste's performance were pretty good overall.

"I've got to look at the film, but I thought he did some good things," Pelini said. "I thought he was physical. I thought he challenged receivers. I'm sure there are some things technique wise he's going to need to clean up, but he's getting better. Each day, every opportunity for him to get out there and experience and be out there in real time, he's going to get better as a football player.

"Every day, every practice for that matter is important for him. He's got to keep it coming, but I thought he did well today."

As for Rome, he said he thought he played fairly well, though admitted he made some bad mistakes as well. One error in particular came on his personal foul penalty during Cassidy's touchdown fumble return.

Well away from the play and Cassidy having already crossed the goal line, Rome delivered a hit on a Minnesota offensive lineman that drew a flag from almost every official on the field.

"I feel like I played well, well enough," Rome said. There's always things I can work on, and obviously I had the stupid penalty… I just wasn't thinking."

- Robin Washut

Huskers got an elevator scare Friday night

Maybe the most daunting challenge for Nebraska during its trip to Minnesota came from a hotel elevator.

Following team position meetings Friday night at the team hotel, 13 players ended up getting stuck on an elevator going back up to their rooms for roughly 45 minutes, senior offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick said.

The group, which not surprisingly included six offensive lineman, as apparently too heavy for the elevator to pull up, and it stalled shortly after beginning its ascent. Not only were the players trapped in the elevator, it actually dropped three separate times before hotel staff could get the players off safely.

To make matters even worse, the players then had to walk up six flights of stairs to get back to the main lobby and get on a different elevator. Understandably, Hardrick said some players didn't trust getting back on another elevator and hiked up as many as 14 more stories of stairs to get back to their rooms.

"I know I didn't want to get back on another elevator," Hardrick said. "Not with a bunch of o-linemen at least."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***While it appeared Bell's 82-yard touchdown run was executed to perfection, Pelini said there were actually several blocking mistakes up front that were luckily made up for by Bell's speed around the edge.

"I thought it was a good design," Pelini said. "I thought it could've been blocked better. (Mike) Caputo was laughing. That probably wasn't his best effort of the day. But you see that Kenny Bell is a pretty explosive guy, and he showed tremendous balance on the sideline. I'm not sure how he was able to keep his balance and stay in. It showed how explosive he was."

***Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he had a good feeling the reverse would be able to work against Minnesota's defense because of the aggressive pursuit to the football it had shown on film. Once he saw the Gophers over pursue on Saturday, he knew it was time to throw in the new wrinkle.

"I said early in the week, I felt this team was very aggressive," Beck said. "They play hard and they run to the ball. I felt like there could be a chance for it. They were playing hard, and it looked like it was there."

***While Nebraska's 346 rushing yards against the Gophers were impressive, Pelini said the Huskers were anything but perfect in the running game.

"Yeah, we had a lot of yards, but I thought there were a lot of things we need to get cleared up," Pelini said. "I would give us probably around a B in how we played in the run game. They gave us a lot of different looks that we expected, and I don't know if we reacted real well to some of those looks, especially as the game went on. We had some repeat errors and didn't get hats on hats. I'll put it this way: we left a lot of big plays out there on the field."

***Pelini said that while the Huskers were happy about the win, they were well aware that they would have to keep their focus as they head into a crucial stretch of the season over the next few weeks.

"You saw a team out there today, they weren't hooping and hollering," Pelini said. "I mean they were happy, but (it was) another day at the office, kind of, is their approach. I think everybody in the locker room knows no one in there played a perfect game, and we've iust got to keep up in our level and we've got to keep working to get better. That's the approach we take, and that will continue."



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