Midlands News Service
LINCOLN - Two momentum-shifting plays enabled Nebraska to overcome an afternoon of surprising offensive mediocrity and subdue a game San Jose State team.
Checking the box score of Nebraska's 35-12 win over the Spartans is almost meaningless. A quick glance may lead one to think it should have been San Jose State celebrating after the game. Senior offensive lineman Matt Slauson certainly was miffed.
"The football gods were looking upon us," Slauson said. "It was amazing. There was a point in the game where they had doubled our yards and we were still up. I don't know how that works."
Slauson's teammates on special teams and on defense can take the credit for keeping San Jose State from seizing the momentum and turning Saturday into a disaster for the Huskers and most of the 84,146 NU fans packed into Memorial Stadium.
Junior Ndamukong Suh returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, and sophomore Niles Paul added seven more points with his 85-yard kickoff return in the fourth.
"That's one thing that our coach preaches to us," Suh said. "If one unit is down, the other two units need to pick us up."
It's just that the Nebraska offense isn't supposed to be the unit that struggles.
The Huskers entered Saturday with a streak of six games with 400 or more yards. As the starting quarterback, senior Joe Ganz hadn't thrown for fewer than 300 yards. After last week's opener, the only legitimate criticism about the Huskers' 45-point, 483-yard offensive output on that day was that the rushing attack wasn't consistent enough.
But by the end of the third quarter against San Jose State, Nebraska looked like a different team. The offense had managed just 183 total yards and a touchdown, allowing the Spartans to stay close in a game assumed to be a blowout.
"We just couldn't find a rhythm," Ganz said. "Once we did one thing right, we would do a couple things wrong. We just can't keep putting ourselves in that situation."
After taking a 7-6 lead with 5:16 left in the first quarter, the Huskers went scoreless on their next six drives, punting four times and turning the ball over twice. Eight of Nebraska's 12 penalties came when the offense was on the field, a veteran unit not supposed to be hampered by mental mistakes.
"Now, we realize that we aren't as good as we thought we were," Ganz said. "We can go back to work on Monday, learn from everything and just try and get better."
The Huskers totaled just 315 yards, 99 on the ground and 216 in the air. They were out-gained by San Jose State, which finished the day with 353 total yards.
But when the game was close, the Spartans couldn't find a way to get points.
After Suh's interception return with three minutes left in the first quarter, the San Jose State offense answered by driving to the Nebraska 24-yard line. But junior kicker Will Johnson missed a 41-yard kick.
Senior kicker Jared Strubeck replaced Johnson, who had already missed an extra point, and made a 41-yarder with about seven minutes left in the fourth. But Strubeck's 32-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half hit the right upright.
Add those seven points, and San Jose State could have been leading 16-14 instead of trailing 14-9 at the break.
But Spartan coach Dick Tomey said after the game that he was pleased his team found a way to stay close, even by the start of the fourth quarter.
"That's what you hope to do in every game, and we were right there," Tomey said. "As I said, Nebraska deserves the credit for shutting the door on us, and making plays of their own in the fourth quarter, and we didn't get it done."
Part of the reason for the Huskers' late-game surge dealt with the way they carried themselves on the sideline, according to coach Bo Pelini.
The game certainly didn't start the way they would have liked.
After picking up a first down, the offense committed one penalty and allowed two sacks, forcing a punt. The Spartans followed the defensive stand with a five-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, taking a 6-0 lead. Nebraska senior defensive end Barry Turner seriously injured his foot on that drive and didn't return.
But despite the early adversity, Pelini said there was no sense of panic from his players.
"I thought that they reacted well," Pelini said. "There's no finger pointing, there's nothing like that. I liked the demeanor, how the team stuck together."
It certainly took a while for the results to show on the scoreboard, though.
The offense didn't resemble its normal self until the fourth quarter, after Paul's return had all but sealed the win. Sophomore Roy Helu capped a 35-yard drive with his 14-yard touchdown run at about the nine-minute mark. Senior Marlon Lucky added a touchdown run of his own at the end of a 74-yard drive.
That last score allowed the Huskers to finally relax, something Pelini said he'll have no problem doing until he watches film today.
"I've been coaching long enough that you learn to appreciate coming out with a 'W' and being 2-0," Pelini said. "Reality hits me when I put that tape on in the morning and I understand where we are and where we want to get to. Until we see perfection on that tape, then it's definitely back to work, and I don't think we'll ever see perfection."