LINCOLN — Nebraska had driven 74 yards in seven plays to start Saturday’s second half, leaving itself 1 yard short of the touchdown that would start the comeback from a 20-6 deficit against Penn State.
To that point, freshman I-back Imani Cross had yet to take a handoff against the Nittany Lions.
Yet the Huskers called his number on the next play — and four more times in that third quarter — and the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder plowed forward in his best attempt to reward that faith.
“It means a lot to me,” Cross said. “I’m glad the coaches trusted me. I’m just glad we were in position to score.”
Cross scored twice in 2:11 as Nebraska pulled even, 20-20. He also converted a pair of third-down carries into first downs on the Huskers’ next drive, helping put them in scoring position again before quarterback Taylor Martinez lost a fumble at the PSU goal line to start the fourth quarter.
Not bad for somebody who had four carries in the previous five games — and none with the same kind of importance as those Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“We went to a little bit of a different package this week,” NU running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Just being able to do some things with our line to get the extra blocker, and then have a big body in there like Imani, was very helpful.
“I think it turned out well. We had a number of those situations in the game, and it worked well for Imani to be in there and serve that role.”
After Cross scored on the 1-yard run with 11:48 left in the third quarter, Nebraska got the football back with Daimion Stafford’s interception and return to the PSU 4. The Huskers went right back to Cross, who gained 2 yards on first-and-goal before plowing through for the 2-yard TD that tied the game with 9:37 to go in the third.
The NU alignment made his job easy as he crashed over the right side, with three tight ends at the point of attack and fullback C.J. Zimmerer leading the way.
“In those situations it’s hard to get big gaping holes like that,” NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “When Imani lowered his shoulder and ran hard, he did a good job.”
Liking what they saw, the Huskers went back to Cross and he picked up 3 and 5 yards, respectively, on third-and-1s. So while his five carries in the third netted only 13 yards, they resulted in two TDs and a pair of first downs.
Cross later was stopped short on a pair of third-and-shorts in the fourth quarter, and finished with 22 yards on eight carries. Those also gave Brown the opportunity to remind him there is plenty of work ahead.
“They started loading the box and it was tough, and yet I have a high standard for him,” Brown said. “He’s got to keep his pads down and finish those last two runs.”
Brown talks pad level and leverage often with Cross. He said Cross has good vision and good quickness, and maybe sometimes relies too much on those traits.
“I’m trying to get him to be even more of a beast,” Brown said. “He’s so powerful, and I don’t think people realize just how strong that kid is. And he hasn’t learned how to use every ounce of his strength yet.
“That’s why he’s still a freshman. He’s still learning. He’s going to be a devastating runner before it’s all done.”
Nebraska had stuck with Ameer Abdullah the past few weeks and passed at times in short-yardage situations. Brown said coaches also liked the goal-line calls at Ohio State where they played Rex Burkhead at quarterback with Abdullah at I-back.
Cross said he never got impatient waiting for his next chances and was just happy that the team was putting together a winning streak. His last consistent work came with 12 carries for a career-high 100 yards and a touchdown against Idaho State.
“I didn’t hang my head,” he said. “I just continued to do my part.”
To Cross, that meant working hard through the week and not worrying about Saturdays. Rhythm might come with more carries in games, but confidence is built through practice.
The staff obviously found some in him, too.
“I don’t know if I would say more of a trust factor. I think it’s more of what I display in practice,” Cross said. “I take practice very seriously, and if you’re displaying the ability to do something in practice it carries over into the game. So I’m thankful for the opportunity I got.”
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