Midlands News Service
LINCOLN - Redemption and bowl eligibility converged Saturday with a Nebraska victory that may come closer than anything else this season to delivering a positive statement about progress under first-year coach Bo Pelini.
NU beat Kansas 45-35 before 85,846 at Memorial Stadium - empty seats and all in the student section - to right two serious wrongs from last season.
The victory, Nebraska's 20th straight over the Jayhawks in Lincoln, avenged in some way the historic 76-39 beatdown handed NU by Kansas last year.
And in an indication of just how far this program must still climb back to national prominence, the Huskers (6-4, 3-3 Big 12) celebrated a win that ensures their season will extend beyond this month.
"We wanted to come out today and regain some of that respect Kansas may have lost for this program," NU defensive end Zach Potter said. "We're still Nebraska, and they're still Kansas. We're happy with this win, and we need to keep moving on."
Yes, NU will return to the postseason after missing it two of the past four years. First, there are games next Saturday at Kansas State and Nov. 28 here against Colorado - both seemingly winnable to give the Huskers a shot at eight victories in the regular season.
Not so bad, huh?
In keeping with the status quo of this roller-coaster season, Nebraska took another wild ride against Kansas (6-4, 3-3) to again find momentum following a 34-point loss a week ago at Oklahoma.
"It's not about me," Pelini said. "It's about the kids on the football team. They needed this. We needed this. Our mission now is to win out. I'm excited we won the football game, but it's not going to change me or what the process is going to be this week."
The definitive moments Saturday emerged from a dark one for NU late in the third quarter. The Huskers, up 17-14, had stiffened defensively and forced a Kansas punt after a Jayhawks drive to the Nebraska 22.
But sure-handed senior Nate Swift fumbled the return. KU linebacker Mike Rivera recovered at the Nebraska 20. The defending Orange Bowl champion Jayhawks scored four plays later on Todd Reesing's 11-yard strike to Dexton Fields.
Just like that it was 21-17 KU, and those with tickets to sit in the upper reaches of the southeast corner looked smart for staying home on this cold and blustery afternoon.
This time, though, the Huskers responded. QB Joe Ganz marched Nebraska 78 yards in eight plays. Swift picked up 24 on third down.
Ganz, the senior, was 5 for 5 on the drive, part of his 28-for-37 performance that totaled 324 yards and three touchdowns. And Roy Helu, the quickly emerging sophomore, took it the final 10 yards for a touchdown.
Helu dove over the pylon to give Nebraska the lead for good, sparking a 28-7 surge over less than 15 minutes of football to secure victory.
"I thought it was huge, because we answered," Pelini said. "They took the momentum a little bit, and we took it right back."
Next came a one-play drive. Helu's 52-yard touchdown burst made it 31-21. He finished with 115 yards and the two touchdowns on 16 carries.
"It was after the first quarter when I saw holes opening up for the backs," Helu said. "Our offensive line was blocking great. I happened to be the back who was running."
Kansas cut it to 31-28 on Jake Sharp's 7-yard TD run, but Helu went right back to work.
He gained 23 yards, jumping over a Kansas defender flattened by Swift to reach the KU 28-yard line. Five plays later, Ganz hit 300-pound nose tackle Ndamukong Suh - lined up at fullback - for a 2-yard touchdown toss in the flat.
"It feels great, not so much that it's repaying (Kansas)," Suh said. "We feel that we're a team, if we play our best, we can beat almost anybody. It wasn't a perfect game by any means, but it was close to it."
Suh was also the star on defense. The junior piled up a team-high 12 tackles, including 2 1/2 sacks and four tackles behind the line.
He led an impressive effort by the defensive line that held Kansas to 118 rushing yards. Reesing was sacked five times, finishing 15 of 30 for 304 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
"They made plays when they had to," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "So credit Nebraska."
The first half came to a stalemate at 14-all after Nebraska missed three opportunities inside the Jayhawks' 35-yard line.
NU turned it over twice in the first half - on a Marlon Lucky fumble at the KU 23 and then on an interception of Ganz by linebacker James Holt at the 18 as the Huskers were marching for a score to go ahead at the break.
The Huskers also came up empty on fourth down at the KU 34 in the opening quarter.
"We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot," Pelini said. "I thought we were in control of that first half, but the turnovers really hurt us. I was disappointed to go in tied."
Defensively, Nebraska forced four Kansas punts in the first half and seven all day, six more than the Jayhawks attempted last year in four quarters of trouncing NU.
Nebraska took the first lead Saturday on an imaginative second possession. Helu gained 21 yards on three straight touches, including 17 on a third-down screen.
Quentin Castille then took over and gained 50 on two runs and a catch. Next came Marlon Lucky, the senior I-back who fielded two consecutive direct snaps. Lucky rushed for 4 yards and threw a 5-yard jump pass to wide-open tight end Mike McNeill in the end zone.
Kansas answered right away with a four-play march to cover 87 yards. The final 28 came after NU defensive back Eric Hagg drilled Reesing on a rollout to his right but failed to wrap up the QB. Reesing bounced off the big hit and regrouped to hit Kerry Meier for a highlight-reel touchdown.
KU went up 14-7 with less than five minutes to play in the half on Dezmon Briscoe's 53-yard catch and run that looked all too easy. But Nebraska converted a key fourth-and-5 play on a 10-yard Ganz pass to Swift and tied it at 14 three plays later on Chris Brooks' first career touchdown, a 25-yard strike from Ganz.