Game Ticker | Box Score
There may not have been a team in the entire country this week more disappointed after a win than Nebraska on Saturday night.
Though the Huskers improved to 4-0 on the season with a 17-3 win over South Dakota State, their sluggish play across the board gave some reason for concern as they now get ready for the start of Big 12 Conference play.
By the time the game clock finally ran out, Nebraska had committed three turnovers and failed to get into any sort of rhythm offensively the entire night, leading to a less than impressive win over a FCS team everyone had assumed it would blow out of the water.
"No, I don't think they did," head coach Bo Pelini said when asked if he thought his players matched SDSU's intensity. "At times I thought we did, but I thought they outplayed us. They out-hit us, they flew around with more passion than we did. For us to walk out of our stadium after playing like that, I'm embarrassed."
In a game where Nebraska was supposed to dominate from the opening kickoff, the Huskers had arguably their worst first quarter of the season. The Jackrabbits dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, controlling the tempo of the game on offense and shutting NU down completely on defense.
After SDSU picked up two first downs before finally punting on its opening possession, Nebraska gave the ball right back when redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled on the very first play and gave the Jackrabbits possession at the NU 24-yard line.
The Jackrabbits marched all the way down to the 1-yard line, and they nearly scored on a run that was ruled just short of the goal line after booth review and then a scoring run that was negated by a penalty.
Facing a fourth-and-goal at the 1, South Dakota State opted to go for it, but running back Kyle Minett, who finished with a game-high 112 yards on 28 carries, was stuffed short to end the drive.
After a three-and-out on its ensuing possession, Nebraska finally got its offense going when a 14-yard run by Helu gave the Huskers their first first down of the night with 1:27 left to play in the first quarter.
By the time the opening quarter wrapped up, NU had just 56 yards of offense, two first downs and zero points.
The second quarter went a little better for the Huskers, though. In fact, on the first play of the quarter, Martinez hit senior receiver Mike McNeill for a 64-yard pass down the right sideline that went down to the 3-yard line.
Sophomore running back Rex Burkhead ran it into the end zone on the very next play to finally get the Huskers on the scoreboard 29 seconds into the second quarter.
Nebraska added to the lead on its next drive, as Martinez found sophomore tight end Kyler Reed wide open down the right side for a 33-yard touchdown pass with 10:46 to go in the half.
That, however, would be the last of the scoring in the first half, as Martinez threw an interception and then ran out of time on NU's final two drives of the half, respectively. As would be expected, the Huskers were anything but pleased with their performance to start the game.
Though they had a decent 217 yards of total offense, the two turnovers and four penalties for 32 yards left little to be happy about.
"We had a lot of yards that we didn't capitalize on," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "It could have been a totally different situation if we had capitalized on the opportunities that were laid out for us."
Just like the first half, Nebraska stumbled out of the gates to open the third quarter. While the defense was at least able to keep the Jackrabbits off the scoreboard, the offense once again was unable to put together any sort of consistency.
As the stalled drives continued for both teams, more and more time drained off the clock. South Dakota State kicked a 35-yard field goal to bring it to 14-3 with 5:11 left in the third quarter, legitimate concern swept over Memorial Stadium as that scored held on into the start of the fourth quarter.
That concern turned into downright panic when Martinez was intercepted for the second time by Derek Domino. Things could have been much worse, however, as Domino's 66-yard return for a touchdown was called back on a blocking below the waist penalty that brought the ball all the way back to the SDSU 33-yard line.
The penalty didn't keep the Jackrabbits down for long, though, as quarterback Thomas O'Brien hit Tyrel Kool for a 33-yard pass down to the NU 34. But just when it seemed the unthinkable was about to happen, junior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard came up with a huge interception at the goal line with a little less than 10 minutes left to play.
Having seen enough of what Martinez could do for the night, sophomore Cody Green took over at quarterback for the ensuing drive. Unfortunately, Green didn't fare much better, as NU went three-and-out and was forced to punt.
The offense failed to score the rest of the way, but the defense was able to hold SDSU off long enough with an interception by safety P.J. Smith and fourth-down stop to at least assure the win.
With 11 days left to prepare for their Big 12 opener against Kansas State on Oct. 7, the Huskers are well aware that numerous improvements need to be made across the board if they're going to keep any of their offseason goals intact.
"I always believe when you walk out there you're going to get better or you're going to get worse," Pelini said. "We got worse today. I call it as I see it. I'm not going to try and paint a picture that is different. A lot of the same things that came out today were things that reach out and grab you in practice. When the errors aren't being corrected and people aren't making adjustments and are repeating their errors, that's a problem. It will reach up and get you.
"Across the board we just didn't execute, forget about everything else. We didn't take the field and do what we're coached to do. We didn't execute our offense, for a lot of times we didn't execute defensively. It all comes down to our football team wasn't ready to play for whatever reason. That comes squarely back to the guy in charge. I take responsibility."
- Robin Washut
Players admit not being mentally prepared
The coaches may have tried to downplay the idea that the Huskers weren't mentally ready to take on a South Dakota State team with essentially nothing to lose, but the players themselves saw it a bit differently.
After coming out flat and uninspired and nearly suffering a devastating upset, the players saw Saturday night's scare as a major wake-up call for the entire team.
"I don't think we came in there and had the right mindset like we had versus Washington, simple as that," Green said. "You hate to have that, but it's simple. You could see it. We went out there thinking, 'OK, we're going to go out here, we're going to break a few big runs.' Well, you can't look at it like that. You have to let the game come to you, and that's not what we did."
Offensively, Green said Nebraska's inability to run the ball down the Jackrabbits' throat like they expected caught everyone off guard and set the tone for all the other miscues the rest of the night.
"We're so used to putting up 400, high 300 yards of rushing in a game, and when that doesn't work, everybody gets frustrated, from the o-line, receivers, the quarterback, running backs, everybody," Green said. "We have to learn from it. We have to go in, watch the film, correct everything that we didn't do right and learn from it."
Redshirt freshman left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said the Huskers might have come into the game thinking they could just show up and get a blow out win. As it turned out, what they got was one big reality check.
"It's an eye-opener," Sirles said. "We think we're pretty good, we think we're this, and then something like this happens, and I think it's gut-check time. We have the bye week to really check in and see what's going on and get it corrected and get back ready to go for Kansas State."
For as humbling as the win was, Sirles said it would benefit the Huskers in the long run because it showed what could happen when they don't come into a game both physically and mentally ready to play.
"It was just bad," Sirles said. "We didn't play up to our standards. Nebraska has a great standard, and that's not what we lived up to today, and that's not the way we play football around here, and that's not the way things need to be done around here, and that needs to change and I think that will change around here. I don't think there will be any discrepancy whether it will or not. It's just going to change."
- Robin Washut
Martinez finally struggles
After three straight stellar performances to open his collegiate career, Martinez finally looked like a redshirt freshman.
With three turnovers and only two scoring drives against a defense that had struggled against the likes of Delaware and Illinois State, Martinez struggled to settle in to a flow and was unable to establish any sort of consistency.
"Sometimes I tried too hard to try to make the offense get a play," said Martinez, who finished 6-of-14 passing for 140 yards, a touchdown and an interception along with 75 yards rushing. "I try my best and obviously it didn't work very well."
Watson agreed that Martinez was trying to do too much at times instead of going through his reads and making the best decision with the football. However, Watson said Martinez would learn from his struggles and become a better player in the future because of them.
"He's got his first taste of adversity, and how he reacts to it and how he responds to it will be critical," Watson said. "Knowing the kid that he is and the competitor that he is, he'll react to it well. He'll come back to work and he'll fix things.
"He's a tough kid. He's a competitor, so he knows. He assured me he's fine, and he'll be ready to go back to work."
- Robin Washut