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November 26, 2010

Huskers clinch Big 12 North in 45-17 rout of Buffs

Game Ticker | Box Score

So much for Nebraska not having an offense without Taylor Martinez.

With their star redshirt freshman quarterback on the bench with a variety of injuries, the Huskers needed to find a way to produce some points and hold off a scrappy Colorado team on Friday in order to clinch the Big 12 North Division title.

Six touchdowns and more than 400 yards of total offense later, it was clear NU ended up doing just fine in what ended in a 45-17 victory over the Buffaloes.

Sophomore running back Rex Burkhead led the way with 19 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown while also completing 2-of-2 passes for 30 yards and two touchdowns out of the Wildcat formation.

Sophomore Cody Green, who started his fourth career game in place of Martinez, had arguably his best game as a Husker, finishing 10-of-13 passing for 80 yards and two touchdowns.

After the game, Pelini said he wasn't surprised by the resiliency his team showed after one of the most tumultuous weeks of his tenure in Lincoln.

"I think our team has shown resiliency over and over for a long time," Pelini said. "A lot of people tried to tear this team apart, and we weren't going to let it happen. Enough said on that."

After last week's dismal offensive showing at Texas A&M, Nebraska came out and moved the ball with much more consistency against the Buffaloes to open the game.

Led by the tough running of Burkhead, Nebraska got on the board first with a 42-yard field goal by Alex Henery - who tied Kris Brown's school record with 388 career points - in the first quarter and then made it a 10-0 game on a 2-yard touchdown run by Burkhead.

Colorado answered right back and cut the deficit to 10-3 with a 22-yard field goal by Aric Goodman with 10:22 to go in the second quarter, but that would be all the scoring the Buffs could manage in the first half. Colorado managed just 86 yards of total offense in the half, and quarterback Cody Hawkins completed just 1-of-8 passes for 25 yards.

Meanwhile, Burkhead and the Huskers weren't done just yet. On Nebraska's final possession of the half, Burkhead once again led the way with six touches on an eight-play scoring drive that was capped off with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Burkhead to receiver Brandon Kinnie down the right sideline with 49 seconds left.

The score put Nebraska back up 17-3 and sent the Huskers into halftime holding all of the momentum. Burkhead ended the first half with 18 carries for 98 yards with both a rushing and passing touchdown.

The Huskers didn't slow down much at all to open the second half, either. Senior defensive backs DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg picked off Hawkins on CU's first two possessions of the third quarter, while the offense capitalized both times with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Green to Kinnie and then a wild improvised pass from Burkhead to tight end Kyler Reed for a 4-yard touchdown.

With Nebraska well in control at 31-3, Colorado finally reached the end zone on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Hawkins to Paul Richardson to make it 31-10 with 8:19 left in the third quarter.

Green and Co. came right back and marched down the field to bump the score back up to 38-10 on a 1-yard touchdown lob from Green to Reed.

Another touchdown pass by Hawkins to Will Jefferson on the ensuing possession made it 38-17 going into the fourth quarter, but the game was never in doubt the rest of the way.

With the win, the Huskers clinched their sixth North title and second in many years. They will go on to face likely the winner of Saturday's Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 4 in Arlington, Texas.

The season almost ended in near disaster, but in the end Nebraska was still able to accomplish the first of its three biggest team goals coming into the year. Next week, the Huskers will try and accomplish the second.

"We're only halfway there," Pelini said. "You've got to win the Big 12 North first to get to the championship game, and we were able to accomplish that today. I'm proud of our kids. I'm happy for our kids. I'm happy for our seniors. They were sent out the right way. That's a tremendous group of young men. It's fun to win the Big 12 North today, but we've still got some unfinished business."

- Robin Washut

Burkhead lives up to Superman title

The guy they call "Superman" surely earned the lofty billing with his play on Friday.

With all the questions surrounding Nebraska's offense about how it would respond with Martinez unable to play, it was the versatile Burkhead who took control and literally put the team on his back in a must-win game.

Of the Huskers' 78 total plays in the game, Burkhead touched the ball on 24 of them and accounted for half of NU's six touchdowns.

"Nothing Rex Burkhead does surprises me," Pelini said. "He's a tremendous football player and a tremendous kid. He's what a football player is. They ought to put his picture next to (football player) in the dictionary. He just does so many things to help you, and he's a tremendous kid, tremendous individual. To me, he epitomizes what this program's all about."

Burkhead has become a bigger and bigger part of the offense with Martinez reeling with injuries, and the Wildcat formation has now become a staple in the offense to help replicate Martinez's production in the running game.

But not since last year's Holiday Bowl has Nebraska's offense looked as creative or multiple than it did against the Buffaloes.

"He's a football player," Watson said. "He's what embodies, you know, if you say someone's a 'natural', he's a natural."

- Robin Washut

Quarterback competition will continue

Even after stepping and leading Nebraska to a big time win on Friday, Green will still have to prove himself once again next week to earn the start in the Big 12 Championship.

While Pelini wouldn't comment on the quarterback situation after the game, Watson said the job would be Martinez's to lose as long as he can get healthy enough to play effectively.

"Let me say this, we'll go day-to-day, because I don't know for sure," Watson said. "I would like for (Martinez) to play next week, absolutely."

Watson said Martinez was available to play Friday as an emergency No. 3 quarterback behind Green and senior Zac Lee. Watson also said Martinez's ankle was almost completely healthy, and it was now more a matter of how well the turf toe on his left foot would heal over the course of the next week.

The key in the decision might be whether Martinez can get close enough to 100 percent by the time the Huskers begin their weekly install period on Tuesday, as Watson said he would ideally want to know which quarterback to prepare with by then.

Should Martinez not be able to go next week, both Watson and Pelini said they would feel perfectly comfortable starting Green once again in the biggest game of the season, especially after his performance on Friday.

"I have confidence in him," Watson said. "I absolutely have a ton of confidence in him. With every chance he's gotten and with every opportunity, he's advanced himself and gotten better. He's become more comfortable and more confident. I thought tonight he led the football team like a veteran quarterback. He did a great job."

Said Pelini:

"We've had confidence in him. I know one thing, it's got to give him a jolt of confidence to play in this kind of situation and step up the way he did. I'm not sure what the health is with Taylor or where we're going to be there, but like I said, now's not the time to worry about that."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Burkhead's second touchdown pass, in which he first ran right, then cut back left and found a wide-open Reed in the back of the end zone, wasn't a total improvisation on his part.

Watson and Pelini said the play was originally designed to be a "pop pass" where he shows run at first and then "pops" the ball over the defense to tight end Ben Cotton, the original first read on the play. When CU's defense closed off the play, Burkhead took over from there and found Reed cutting back across the end zone.

"Rex did a beautiful job," Watson said. "He'd thrown that pass all week long just like you saw it tonight. We don't tell our scout teams how to react, we just see the natural reaction. He can thread a needle, which he did on that one. It was a perfect throw."

***Pelini said sophomore defensive end Cameron Meredith would "be fine" after leaving the game with a sprained ankle.

***The biggest surprise contributor of the day was fifth-year senior wide receiver Joe Broekemeier, who came out of nowhere to fill the shoes of the injured Niles Paul this week.

The Aurora native caught three passes for 34 yards, with all three receptions coming on third down and two going for first downs. What makes his performance so amazing, though, is the fact that he hadn't played in a live football game since his freshman year of high school back in 2002.

"Yeah, it's been a long time," Broekemeier said. "I was telling the guys yesterday that we knew I was going to get in, but it has been eight years since I have been in an actual game."

Broekemeier's last game came in the '02 Class B state semifinals against McCook. He then injured his back prior to his sophomore season and then sat out the year after breaking his hand in his first practice back. A few months later, he missed his junior season after blowing out his elbow playing baseball.

He said all of the injuries made him decide not to play sports his senior year. Luckily for both him and Nebraska, he decided to give football another chance and joined the team in the fall of 2008.

"He's been practicing with us for a while now," Pelini said. "When you have a guy like Niles, it's kind of hard to crack the lineup and get in there. His name went to the top of the list when Niles had the injury. Nothing that Joe does will surprise me. He's a good football player. He really stepped up today. I was real happy for him. He's a great kid."

***With the Huskers improving to 10-2 on the season, Pelini becomes just the second coach ever at Nebraska to record two 10-win seasons in his first three years, joining only Frank Solich on the list.

***By winning its final Big 12 regular season game, Nebraska finishes with an overall record of 81-39 and 46-14 at home in conference play.

***Burkhead bumped his season rushing total up to 822 yards on Friday. Should he be able to get at least 178 more yards in Nebraska's final two games this season and Martinez (976 yards) be able to rush for 24 more, it would give Nebraska three 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history.

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