Curt McKeever: Strong performance positive step for NU

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BY CURT McKEEVER / Lincoln Journal Star

Saturday, Sep 02, 2006 - 10:31:02 pm CDT

Almost always, it’s a good thing to have the athletic director waiting to greet you after a convincing, season-opening victory.

And yet, as Steve Pederson stood inside the entrance to the Osborne Sports Complex on Saturday afternoon ready to pat shoulders and glad hand the Huskers following their ultra-smooth 49-10 conquering of Louisiana Tech, there had to be a wiseguy to spoil the moment.

Nope, it wasn’t yours truly. This was an actual Nebraska insider — one from the younger, more-inhibited generation — who as he approached Pederson smirked and asked: “Was that good enough for you?”

With all respect, I’d like to take a crack at that one, because the answer is a no-brainer.

Now, does that mean Nebraska is primed to move back to the top of the Big 12’s North Division?  I’ll pass on that for now. But after Saturday, I think we’d all agree the Huskers look more like that kind of team than how things appeared after each of coach Bill Callahan’s previous two openers with NU.

Two years ago, Nebraska drilled NCAA Division I-AA Western Illinois 56-17, but the thing that stood out most was quarterback Joe Dailey’s four interceptions. (Dailey, by the way, lost in his debut as North Carolina’s starting quarterback Saturday). Sure enough, the next week Dailey made another costly throw late in the game and the Huskers lost to Southern Mississippi to signal the start of a stormy season at Camp Husker.

Last year, Nebraska looked equally confused, at least offensively, trying to put away Maine. And that storyline would continue throughout the next two games, as both of those wins, against Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, banked almost exclusively on a dominant defense and fortuity on special teams.

Saturday, Nebraska’s offensive rust lasted just a few series. Thereafter, thanks to the kind of protection that allowed senior quarterback Zac Taylor to often look like he could hit receivers on underneath routes with his eyes closed, the Huskers played with a lights-out mentality.

“It was a lot different winning this game knowing we could make plays,” said Taylor, whose 287 passing yards were the most by a NU quarterback in a season opener. “Last year, I kind of went into the game just not wanting to make mistakes.”

Big difference.

After Nebraska’s second series Saturday, Taylor directed four straight touchdown drives. During the third — a textbook clinic on how to execute a two-minute drill — and fourth — which left Nebraska up 28-10 — Taylor completed 12 of 13 passes to seven receivers for 161 yards.

“It felt like the Colorado game last year,” he said of the stunning 30-3 regular season-ending rout in Boulder. “We were doing whatever we wanted.”

It should be noted that Nebraska’s second series Saturday would have ended with a TD if not for a holding call against right guard Mike Huff. And during the march at the end of the first half, the Huskers overcame two penalties on center Kurt Mann and another illegal-formation infraction.

“The thing with that, I think that’s just the experience on the team,” said sophomore wide receiver Nate Swift, who last season led Husker receivers in catches, yards and TDs, despite the fact he didn’t play until the fourth game. “We’ve got Zac coming back into the huddle and saying ‘That’s nothing, we’ll get those yards back, don’t worry about it.’ ”

Another big difference from 2005.

“Even the linemen, last year they were like, ‘Geez, we’ve got another penalty.’ They’d get mad at each other and it’d just be confusion in the huddle after that,” Swift said. “But they all shrugged it off (today) and I think all the other skill guys shrugged it off, too.”

By the end — while operating in rapid tempo and displaying lots of movement, both with alignments and personnel — NU converted an astonishing 11 of 16 third-down situations and racked up 584 yards. That was its highest total in four seasons. What’s more, with Marlon Lucky, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson regularly being guided to the express-lane, Nebraska posted its first game of at least 250 yards rushing and passing for the first time since 1996.

Brandon Jackson also showed on his 25-yard jaunt to paydirt midway through the fourth quarter how valuable it is to have someone who can turn nothing into something dazzling.

And let us not forget the value of tight end Matt Herian. The All-Big 12 Conference performer returned from missing the final three games of 2004 and all of last year with a broken leg to catch three passes for 61 yards and a score.

“Today was fun — a little different feeling (than last year),” said defensive end Jay Moore, who admitted that the struggle with Maine left him sick to his stomach. “Obviously, we can always get better.”

But what Moore witnessed on Saturday — which included the defense dealing with a young secondary but still limiting Tech to 13 first downs — left no doubt in his mind that the Huskers are farther ahead than where they’ve been previously at this point under Callahan.

Much farther.

“It should (be that way), definitely, just because of the vets we’ve got in the system and how long we’ve been in the system,” he said. “(But) we set high standards. They could’ve had a lot fewer yards.”

That, of course, would be nitpicking. And if that’s all you can find after a season opener, well, I’d say the question asked to Pederson pretty much answers itself.

“I hope when people see us play they see a bunch of people fighting for each other,” offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “That’s what we’ve kind of developed here, it’s not something that just happened. That’s what we’re most proud of as coaches. This is a positive step.”

Reach Curt McKeever at 473-7441 or cmckeever@journalstar.com.


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