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Johnson gets call at running back as Husker shift rotation

Johnson gets call at running back as Husker shift rotation

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NORMAN, Okla. — The unpredictable deployment of Nebraska running backs continued Saturday. This time, though, the group sustained its first potentially serious injury.

Third-year redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson made his first start and ended as NU’s leading rusher with 42 yards on 11 carries. He also added career highs in catches (three) and receiving yards (48). His bursts through the middle repeatedly helped extend Nebraska drives.

“It’s a blessing and I’ve been working hard and I’ve been working for the opportunity,” Johnson said. “I finally got it and I finally got to show what I can do. It’s just a blessing.”

Freshman Gabe Ervin added nine carries for 18 yards but went down with an injury late in the third quarter after a carry. He left the stadium on crutches with his right knee in a brace. In the worst-case scenario, he could redshirt this season because he’s played just four games.

“We’re going to re-evaluate him when he gets back,” NU coach Scott Frost said. “Looks like he could miss a little bit of time.”

Said Johnson: “We’re going to ride with Gabe — that’s our guy. We’re just going to keep balling, that’s all we can do.”

Markese Stepp didn’t see a carry. Sevion Morrison added one rush for 1 yard. Each has previously been a main ground weapon for NU this fall. Stepp ran 18 times for 101 yards against Fordham, and Morrison has totaled 55 yards on 17 tries combined the previous two weeks.

Johnson’s speed makes him “a little bit different,” Frost said. The position group is so even that the Huskers will continue to play whoever competes the best in practice.

Tight end impactful

Nebraska played with its top two tight ends for the first time this season. And their considerable ability showed.

The status of Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek was unclear entering the week. Allen was recovering from a head injury against Buffalo, while Vokolek was ramping up for his season debut after a camp setback. Both were key blockers in the run game and combined for seven catches and 81 yards.

“Give ‘em heck,” Allen said of the game plan at the position.

Allen’s six grabs (for 43 yards) were a career high, with many coming in key moments. Vokolek reeled in a 38-yarder on a throwback play down the right side that set up an Adrian Martinez touchdown run two plays later.

Both knew early in the week they would be factors in Norman. Allen said he cleared concussion protocol Thursday and knew Vokolek would be back, as well.

“I think the vibe is we all see our potential,” Allen said. “We went stride for stride with the No. 3 team in the country. Our team is ready to turn a corner. It’s just gotta be no more saying we can do it, it’s gotta be go out and do it. I’m excited to see how we prepare for Michigan State.”

Broken play

Nebraska already burned two timeouts. It had no interest in burning a third.

So, with the Huskers trailing 23-9 in the third quarter, Martinez called for a snap knowing when he got the ball, he was going to try to execute broken play — a QB run up the middle. He lost a yard back to the OU 18.

Three downs later, he was throwing a desperation interception at the Sooner 3-yard line.

What happened?

“We called trips right,” Frost said of the first-down play, which came right after Martinez’s 55-yard pass to Zavier Betts and a 15-yard penalty on OU for sideline interference. “We either signaled it in wrong or they lined up wrong. Adrian made a decision not to burn a timeout and try and get what he could. Those things can’t happen.”

NU had issues with the play clock often Saturday. In one case, the Husker punt team didn’t get onto the field in time, and Frost had to burn a first-half timeout.

Husker weapons

Nebraska had many of its weapons back Saturday, and Martinez, Frost said, looked better as a result.

Vokolek, Allen, Omar Manning and Betts, all of whom missed some part of this season, suited up Saturday, combining for 12 catches and 194 yards.

“He had all his weapons out there,” Frost said.

Nebraska is likely to be without Ervin for an extended amount of time after the freshman back hurt his right knee in the second half. Ervin emerged from the locker on crutches, wearing a brace.

‘Own harshest critics’

On the sideline, Martinez tried to stay positive with the offensive line, which struggled all day against Oklahoma, even after a number of false starts.

“Those guys know,” Martinez said. “A lot of those guys are their own harshest critics, especially when it comes to something like that. We’ve harped on it. They know. I know. It was more positivity today.”

Martinez and Frost said, at times, NU’s offensive line protected better than it has all season. Other times — such as the game’s end — it struggled.

Tough road ahead

The Big Ten now awaits Nebraska, and it won’t be an easy road.

While Northwestern, which lost big at Duke on Saturday, is struggling, NU’s next opponent, Michigan State, has been one of the surprise stories of the season. The Spartans beat Miami 38-17 Saturday.

Michigan, which visits Oct. 9, is undefeated and sporting one of the best defenses in the country.

Nebraska is 2-2 with three strong performance and one ugly loss at Illinois, which has lost every game since playing the Huskers.

“Obviously, we’ve faced some adversity, which is good,” defensive end Ben Stille said. “Some teams, in their nonconference schedule, they don’t face much adversity, so that was good for us. Obviously, we would have liked to come out with a little better showing.”

Defense steadies

Nebraska’s defense knows how to play through the groans.

If the Huskers punt or turn the ball over or, as was the case against Oklahoma, miss two field goals and have an extra point blocked for a 2-point conversion, the Blackshirts know how to tidy the mess.

“Were always kind of preaching to ourselves, ‘Put out the storm,’” linebacker Luke Reimer said. ‘“Put out the fire.’ And I think we did an OK job with that today.”

Nebraska went 2 for 4 fighting fires against the Sooners.

It held up after Connor Culp’s first missed field goal and after Martinez’s fourth-quarter interception. It relented after Culp’s second miss and the 2-point conversion.

Reimer said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander coined the defense’s mantra, but Chinander couldn’t have coined it without help from the Huskers’ other phases. Nebraska hopes it can cut down on its mistakes during Big Ten play.

But if it can’t, the Blackshirts will support their teammates. They’ve had plenty of practice grabbing helmets at the last second. They know how to spot a leak. Their job is to stop it from flooding the house.

“(On) sudden changes, we got to go out there and just do our thing,” Reimer said. “Not let one mistake from a different side of the ball come to two mistakes, three mistakes — just kind of spirals out of control.”

O-line sees yellow

Nebraska committed eight penalties against the Sooners. Its offensive line committed six.

Center Cam Jurgens committed two 15-yarders when Nebraska drove into OU territory. Jurgens shares fans’ frustrations about the special teams. He knows Nebraska’s kicking game cost Nebraska nine points against Oklahoma.

“But to be honest, we need to be scoring and we shouldn’t leave it up to any of that,” Jurgens said. “When we go down there, we need to score.”

Jurgens would argue his penalty on Nebraska’s first drive, which moved the Huskers from OU’s 20 to its 35, cost the Huskers four points. The false starts might be worth a couple, too.

Though Nebraska scored a touchdown on the drive where Jurgens committed his second personal foul, the penalty cost the Huskers time, something they could’ve used at the end of the game.

Jurgens said he wouldn’t change the approach that led to his second penalty. He was blocking downfield, the defender grabbed his facemask and Jurgens didn’t hear the whistle. But he thinks the rest of the penalties result from a lack of focus. And that can’t sustain if the Huskers plan to succeed in the Big Ten.

“Everybody’s got to be dialed in to what they’re doing,” Jurgens said. “If it matters to you, it matters to the guy next to you. We’ve just got to keep working on it.”

Quick hits

Defensive linemen Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas received loud greetings from family and friends in attendance under the stadium tunnel after the game. Thomas is from Mustang — a suburb of nearby Oklahoma City — and Daniels is from the Dallas area.

Punter Daniel Cerni headed for the bus with his right knee wrapped in ice. The second-year freshman didn’t play Saturday, and last season’s starter William Przystup enjoyed a strong day in his place with two punts for 52 and 48 yards.

Sam McKewon and Jimmy Watkins also contributed to this report.


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