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September 5, 2009

Nebraska rolls in 49-3 romp of Florida Atlantic

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As far as debuts go, Nebraska's performance in Saturday's 49-3 win over Florida Atlantic was worthy of a standing ovation all the way around.

Coming into the game with numerous question marks on both sides of football, the Huskers provided a whole lot of answers in their season opener.

With a new starting quarterback, a suddenly thin running back corps, a young and inexperienced linebacker unit and uncertainties in the secondary and offensive line, Nebraska eased the worries of Husker Nation with solid play in each of those areas.

"It was a good start," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Like I said going in, you play that first game and it gives you a bench mark, it gives you an idea of where you are. I saw some good things out there. We got to play a lot of guys, but I also found out we have a lot of work to do. We were sloppy at times and not real crisp, but that's to be expected in an opener.

"I also know, like I just told the team, you have to make a big a jump between your first game and your second game. If we do that then we'll continue working in the right direction."

Offensively, NU overcame some early jitters to put together 49 points off 490 yards of total offense (259 rushing, 262 passing).

Junior quarterback Zac Lee managed the game beautifully - aside from a bad third-quarter interception - completing 15-of-22 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Behind him, true freshman Cody Green stepped in and completed 2-of-3 passes for 18 yards and reeled off a 49-yard scamper down the sideline, followed by a 1-yard touchdown run.

Junior running back Roy Helu made the loss of Quentin Castille seem all but forgotten, as he racked up 152 yards on 16 carries with a career-high three touchdowns. Even better, true freshman Rex Burkhead filled in quite nicely, picking up 39 yards on nine carries to go along with his first collegiate touchdown.

Things even looked promising at the most concerning position of all - wide receiver. Though no one emerged as the clear No. 1 target, Nebraska got more than enough production via committee.

Senior Menelik Holt and sophomore Curenski Gilleylen both recorded first half touchdown receptions, as a total of eight different players had at least one catch on the night.

"It feels really good to finally get out there and get to have some significant playing time," said Gilleylen, who ended the game with a team-best four catches for 92 yards and a score. "I definitely went out there and showed what I could do."

Defensively, the Huskers were as stingy as ever. Florida Atlantic was able to put up some decent yardage (358 total yards), but it couldn't get anything to show for it on the scoreboard. Outside of a first-quarter field goal, the Owls were shut down completely.

After the secondary struggled with interceptions all of last season, NU picked off two passes on the night - one by senior Matt O'Hanlon and another by junior Prince Amukamara - not to mention another fumble recovery, two dropped picks and one that was negated by a penalty.

"That's been a huge emphasis of ours," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "We talk about it every day. We try to coach it as much as we can, and we talked about it right before we took the field for the first time. To me, the aggression to the ball is great and getting after the ball, but guys are in the right place coverage-wise, and we're playing with effort and we're breaking on the ball.

"That's when you're going to have those turnover opportunities, and hopefully we can keep that rolling as the season goes along."

Nebraska pretty much controlled the game in every aspect from the opening snap, as they used pair of big pass plays to take a 21-3 lead into the second half.

After a shaky three-and-out on their opening possession, the Huskers got on the scoreboard on their second drive when Lee found Holt on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 7:41 left in the first quarter.

On the play, Holt broke a tackle on a nice move to the outside after the catch, and Gilleylen helped spring him for the score with a huge block on an FAU defensive back.

Later on in the second quarter, Gilleylen came up big again, this time hauling in a 51-yard touchdown pass from Lee to increase the lead to 14-0. Gilleylen, who was wide open on the play, nearly stumbled on his way to the end zone, but was able to keep his feet to chalk up his first career touchdown.

After the Owls finally got on the board with a 21-yard field goal, junior running back Roy Helu capped off an 15-play, 82-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard touchdown run that sent the Huskers into halftime with a 18-point lead.

From there, the rest was merely a formality. Nebraska went on to put up 28 more points on the scoreboard, while the Owls couldn't find their way into the end zone once.

While it was only one game against a fairly unexciting opponent, it was still a good start to a season filled with high expectations. In fact, it could even be considered a near perfect start.

Well, maybe not for Bo Pelini.

"It's a win," Pelini said. "It's 1-0 and that's what we came here for. We'll enjoy it tonight, relax a little bit, and then it's time to go back to work."

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