The Nebraska offensive line finally flexed its muscles after being criticized for not being able to push anyone around.
The ninth-ranked Cornhuskers (3-0) rolled linemen in and out Saturday and relied on power running plays to finish a 51-38 win over Washington. The performance harkened to old-school Nebraska of the 1980s and '90s.
"Platooning guys is going to be huge," tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. "That's what they did when they won their national championships - just keep wearing out the defense. It shows by the end of the game. We were coming off the ball fresh. A lot of us had rested legs. We came in and kept pounding away at them."
Nebraska rushed for 309 yards, with 217 coming in the second half. Rex Burkhead had 84 of his 120 yards and 15 of his 22 carries in the third and fourth quarters.
Center Mike Caputo and guard Spencer Long played the entire game. The other linemen rotated every third series, with Jeremiah Hardrick, Seung Hoon Choi and Tyler Moore in one group and Sirles, Brandon Thompson and Marcel Jones in the other.
Caputo, Long and Choi joined the program as walk-ons. Caputo was put on scholarship before the 2009 season. The Huskers hadn't started three walk-ons on the offensive line since 1988.
The problems up front the first two games against Chattanooga and Fresno State were not unexpected, line coach Barney Cotton said. Injuries that cropped up in the offseason and in preseason practice affected rhythm and chemistry, he said. Sirles said he and his linemates had their best week of practice, and everything fell into place against Washington.
The way the line was blocking, and the way Washington's defense lined up, allowed offensive coordinator Tim Beck to even get fullback Tyler Legate involved as a ball carrier. His 36-yard run in the third quarter was Nebraska's longest rush by a fullback since Steve Kriewald went 48 yards against Oklahoma in 2004.v
"Legate looked like John Riggins going down the right-hand side," coach Bo Pelini said. "It was pretty cool."
But Cotton, who played at Nebraska and has had two coaching stints in Lincoln, knows the nature of fickle Nebraska fans and how they'll react if there's slippage this week at Wyoming (3-0). "It's one game," Cotton said. "This place, it's either too good or too bad. We're at game three. Absolutely it was an important step. But it still was just one step. We're not to be anointed, and we're not to be chastised."
Big Red fans surely liked what they saw in the fourth quarter against the Huskies.
After Washington pulled to 44-31, Burkhead ran over right tackle three straight times and then up the middle before Taylor Martinez scored a touchdown on a naked bootleg for a 20-point lead. "That drive for 50 yards to get us that last touchdown, there was a lot of line movement out there," Cotton said. "I could see that in the (press) box."
On the next series, Burkhead carried six straight times but the Huskers turned the ball over on downs when he couldn't convert a fourth-and-3. "The power plays, the inside zone, that's a great cup of tea for Rex Burkhead," running backs coach Ron Brown said. "It's tough, physical running in between the tackles. He has great eyesight, great vision, makes people miss in holes. He can lower his shoulder and get a few extra yards after contact as well."
Nebraska's no-huddle offense is demanding because the Huskers vary their tempo to exploit and wear down the defense.
Brown said he could tell in the second quarter that Washington was struggling.
"We had a pace and tempo that really was moving," Brown said. "We were snapping the ball before they were lined up. During the course of that their guys got tired."
Brown said it was apparent from the fourth-quarter play-calling that Beck had heeded the message delivered at halftime by the offensive linemen.
The message: "Put it on our back."