LINCOLN — A veteran offense built to hum. A young defense yet to gel.
Nebraska’s football team went into spring practice with that label. After Saturday’s spring game/variety show, there’s no false advertising about it.
The Red beat the White 32-25. But in a first half that amounted to the substance of this extended scrimmage, the offense emerged, unsurprisingly, as the big winner — racking up 421 yards and 38 points in the first two quarters — while NU defenders were often on the losing end of big plays.
“I was pleased, but you’d expect that with the older group,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “That’s where we want to be.”
Husker coach Bo Pelini — who lurked 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage with a Big Ten Network camera two feet from his knees — has a defense that steadfastly remains in stasis. Zero sacks and forced turnovers in the first half. Missed tackles. Tight ends and fullbacks behind the secondary, open for big gains. “I’m not going to sit here and dissect everything that happened to us on defense, but there were a lot of recurring themes that happened to us in that first half,” Pelini said. “You come to anticipate some things that are going to happen going in.”
The 60,174 fans at Memorial Stadium were surprised — and judging by cheers, pleased — by several events embedded inside the Red-White game.
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Offensive linemen fielded punts — or not — for points. A medieval 3-on-1 mash-up called the “Find a Way to Win” drill pitted a single defender against two blockers and a running back. One linebacker got picked up around his belly and hauled back down to the ground. Pelini had planned a field-goal kicking contest, but pulled it because of time constraints.
A high point came midway through the fourth quarter, when 7-year-old Jack Hoffman — a pediatric brain cancer patient who’s been friends with former Husker Rex Burkhead for nearly two years — ran for a 69-yard touchdown for the Red team while wearing a No. 22 jersey.
“That was awesome for the team and for Jack,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said.
“Pretty special thing,” Pelini said.
So was the offense in the first half. Top quarterbacks Martinez (Red) and Ron Kellogg (White) missed just three passes between them. They led four touchdown drives. Martinez’s Red team replacement, redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, ran the option with skill and led a touchdown drive of his own.
Though NU ran its no-huddle tempo at decent speed, Beck’s calls weren’t fancy — toss plays, middle zone runs, bubble screens — and among the top three quarterbacks, only Armstrong was allowed to run. No matter.
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Kellogg completed 11 of 12 passes for 148 yards and a 17-yard touchdown to David Sutton. He led the White team to 21 points.
Martinez led the Red team to 10 points. He hit eight of 10 passes for 105 yards and a 45-yard touchdown to fullback C.J. Zimmerer, who was wide open on a seam route and outran defenders to the end zone.
Armstrong, including his second-half numbers, led the Red team to 14 points, and finished five of seven for 102 yards and a 37-yard touchdown to Alonzo Moore. King Frazier (64 yards) and Imani Cross (55 yards) were leading rushers.
Pelini said some of the young defenders — playing in their first spring game — weren’t quite ready for the atmosphere. Their eyes got “too big for a situation like this.” Nickel back Ciante Evans said he was “glad” young players experienced the pressure of a large crowd.
Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski — whose unit put little pressure on the trio of quarterbacks in the first half — was more pointed in his criticism.
“It didn’t look like guys were flying around,” Kaczenski said. “That was what I was most upset with and disappointed in. I don’t care if you can’t get lined up. I want to see guys flying around. Didn’t see that. Whether it’s jitters, anxiety, whatever — that’s excuses. We gotta get guys flying around.”
Once the second half switched to a running clock and both offenses used more reserves, the defenses did more of that, Kaczenski said, notching six sacks and allowing seven points, when Armstrong hit Moore for the 37-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Hoffman’s touchdown was counted in the final score, as were points accumulated in the two first-half drills. The White team held the edge in those 4-2.
The Red defense was led by junior linebacker Trevor Roach, who had 10 tackles. On the White, backup senior linebacker Colby Starkebaum, son of 1970s Husker linebacker John Starkebaum, had seven tackles and two sacks of Armstrong. The game lasted just over two hours, a snug programming fit for BTN.
Pelini started his postgame comments by saying he had “concerns” midway through spring practice about whether his defense was making strides. In the final two weeks, he said, NU’s defense turned the corner. The offense is already there. The goal now, Pelini said, is for the Huskers to go “above and beyond” in their offseason workouts.
What’s that mean? Study, Evans said. Get in the playbook. Do extra drills.
“Don’t be complacent,” Evans said.
Nebraska’s offense wasn’t Saturday.
“As a team I think we did good,” Martinez said. “As an offense, we did really good. I think we’ve figured out a lot from last year.”
The Huskers’ defense has four months to do the same.
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• Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini:
• Video: NU's Taylor Martinez:
• Video: NU's C.J. Zimmerer:
• Video: Sights and sounds from Memorial Stadium:
• Video: Spring game time lapse from Memorial Stadium: