After last week's big victory over Oklahoma, I was somewhat fearful of a letdown against Kansas this week. A big victory over Missouri a month ago led to two disappointing losses against Texas Tech and Iowa State. And letdown the defense did after an outstanding first quarter where the Jayhawks were held without a first down.
Down the stretch, the outstanding defensive line play that Husker fans have counted on simply didn't occur this afternoon, which was surprising given how the Kansas offensive line has struggled most of this season. Surprising, and downright disappointing. Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing had time to scramble and find Kerry Meier, who was uncoverable at times tonight. (When I say "uncoverable", it was because Meier made some impossible catches that it didn't matter how the defense tried to cover.) Add in a little bit from Dezmon Briscoe, and the Kansas offense moved the ball much of the second half. Thank goodness Jake Sharp dropped a pass sprinting downfield.
Just in the nick of time, the Husker offense found some signs of life this afternoon. Niles Paul established himself as a deep threat that helped nudge the Kansas defense out of stacking the box. Most of the past month or so, defenses have dared Nebraska to throw deep, and finally Nebraska did with success. Even more surprising was watching Zac Lee show a little bit of speed on rollouts and scrambles. He's not Eric Crouch or Tommie Frazier, but he's faster than Zac Taylor. In past games, it seemed like Lee was always looking to pass even when he was scrambling, but today he committed to run the ball, and he found positive yardage on the ground when it wasn't available through the air.
I know some Husker fans were grumbling about the playcalling this week, but much of that grumbling this week is unfounded. Nobody is happy that the Husker offense is so pedestrian, but the fact is that is what Nebraska has for an offense, right or wrong. Niles Paul and Roy Helu are really the only two playmakers out on the field. Rex Burkhead would be another, but he's injured. Quentin Castille was kicked off the team in August, and Menelik Holt is inconsistent at best. So Nebraska is limited to running the ball to get any sort of offensive continuity going...and yes, sometimes that means running the reviled short-side option. Is it ugly at times? Yes. Would you to be able to move the ball more effectively? Yes, but what do you expect when the previous regime used up so many scholarships on offensive players who contribute so little? So Nebraska tries to muddle through with Paul and inexperienced receivers like Khiry Cooper and Brandon Kinnie. Would I have liked to see Mike McNeill used more earlier in the game; heck, earlier in this season? Absolutely. But all told, I think Shawn Watson called a good game today given what he has to work with.
So Roy Helu had another outstanding game, sealing the game with two big touchdowns down the stretch along with his 156 yards. The offense bailed out the Blackshirts this week, and you have to feel good about getting a victory on the road when the defense didn't play up to their potential.
That's seven wins for the Huskers, and the Huskers are in position to win the North Division if they take care of business the next two weeks. Kansas State and Colorado are two games that the Huskers should be favored to win. Both the Wildcats and Buffaloes have shown the ability to pull off surprising upsets this season, so Nebraska will need to play well down the stretch.
Win those two games, and you never know. Another defensive performance like last week combined with an improving offense might allow the Huskers to do something unexpected in a season where the unexpected and inexplainable seems to occur each week. (How the heck does USC give up 55 points at home? How does Missouri give up 40 to Baylor?) But the focus needs to be on the Wildcats, who are in a dangerous position: defeat Nebraska, and they live on to play in the Big XII Championship game and a bowl game, perhaps the Fiesta Bowl if they pull off the upset. Lose next week, and the Wildcats season is over. They have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose as their season is on the line. (The Wildcats victory over Tennessee Tech doesn't count towards bowl eligibility as only one 1-AA/FCS victory is allowed in determining bowl eligibility.)