LINCOLN — The second quarter began with Nebraska's offense in the middle of a funk, backed up in its own territory and seemingly destined for another punt — or maybe even something worse.
It was the type of stretch that has plagued this unit, an often explosive group that occasionally loses focus. The mistakes pile up and the consequences are often costly.
Second half at UCLA. Third quarter of the Arkansas State game. First half against Wisconsin. Second quarter in the hostile Horseshoe. First half at Northwestern last weekend.
And on Saturday, the trend seemed to be reappearing — against maybe the best defense Nebraska's faced. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck could sense it, so he hit the reset button.
Facing first-and-24 on its own 14-yard line in a scoreless game, the Huskers did what they feel most comfortable doing.
“Sometimes within the scheme of our offense, I'm going to pick a set and we're just going to go as fast as we can go,” Beck said. “And that's what we did.”
The drive wasn't scripted, but Beck said he chose plays he “knew we could execute.” He made sure to waste little time getting those calls relayed to signalers on NU sideline.
A quick pass to Ben Cotton for 15 yards, then a 12-yard screen to Jamal Turner. Taylor Martinez rolled out and found Quincy Enunwa for five yards before running for three more on the Wolverines' weak side. Steven Osborne caught a 19-yard pass on third down because Michigan's defenders overplayed the short routes. Then, against a man-to-man look, Kenny Bell found open space, hauled in a pass and dove in to complete a 32-yard touchdown play.
Seven plays. Eighty-six yards. In one minute, 53 seconds.
“That was a big-time drive for us,” Beck said. “Big-time drive.”
It gave Nebraska a 7-0 edge, a lead the Huskers never relinquished in a 23-9 victory over Michigan. It took some pressure off an offense that couldn't completely find its rhythm until the second half, sputtering a bit against the unconventional line-of-scrimmage looks from the Wolverines.
And that possession kept Michigan from seizing early momentum by feasting on the struggles of Nebraska's sometimes streaky offense.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
Of the Huskers' other first-half possessions Saturday, two were three-and-outs and another ended in a Martinez fumble. The opening drive was ruined by a takedown of Ameer Abdullah five yards behind the line of scrimmage, when defensive end Craig Roh entered the backfield unblocked.
Even that second-quarter touchdown drive started with a 15-yard illegal block penalty on center Justin Jackson. But NU's offense found a way to respond.
“All offseason we tried to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations so that we could respond to those types of situations when they do occur in a game,” said Cotton, a senior tight end. “The team did a great job of overcoming those things.”
There wasn't as much self-created adversity to battle through after halftime, though.
Pre-snap miscommunication at the line of scrimmage ruined the Huskers' pass protection scheme at times early in Saturday's win. The ground game never got on track in the first half (NU averaged 2.9 yards per carry).
But Nebraska started to attack the edges of Michigan's defense in the third quarter. The Wolverines let too many plays get outside, and then didn't tackle well after NU's ball carriers got out in space, according to coach Brady Hoke.
Abdullah could see the opponent wearing down. “Stretch and puncture,” Abdullah said. That was the objective.
“They have some pretty big guys up front,” he said. “We felt that if we could get those guys going laterally, they're not as effective when we go up the middle, which you saw late in the game.”
Abdullah finished with 101 rushing yards, 85 of which came after halftime. He sealed the win with a smooth-looking 12-yard run, where he knifed around a couple well-executed blocks before cutting upfield for the end zone.
The play unfolded exactly the way it's designed to, according to running backs coach Ron Brown.
“The receivers did a nice job out on the edge, the linemen were pulling and handling people coming from inside-out and Ameer just read it real well,” Brown said. “Great eyes. He put his foot in the dirt, stopped on a dime, got himself up inside and was able to wiggle through.”
|MORE BIG RED TODAY UPDATES|
|Want the latest Husker headlines delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for email alerts!|
Nebraska could have used more of that kind of execution inside the red zone Saturday.
Martinez completed just one of his five pass attempts inside the 20-yard line — and that completion went for minus-3 yards to Abdullah. One sailed right over Turner because the sophomore receiver lost it in the lights.
Generally, Michigan's red-zone strategy was a little different than what NU expected, according to Beck.
That assessment was applicable for much of the game, though. “You've got to keep changing it up,” Beck said.
Adjustments off the adjustments off the adjustments.
For example: Nebraska wanted to run inside to start, but soon realized it needed to go laterally. Then it ran out the clock on an 11-play, seven-minute drive filled with downhill-style runs.
It wasn't pretty and film review will reveal plenty of errors, but Beck said he'll take the win.
“We stayed the course,” Beck said. “We were very patient. And we were able to find ways to score some points to win the game.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, email@example.com; twitter.com/JonNyatawa
* * *
>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:
>> Video: NU's Ameer Abdullah after the game:
>> Video: NU's Sean Fisher after the game:
>> Video: NU's P.J. Smith after the game:
>> Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles after the game:
>> Video: Husker postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust: