LINCOLN — In the fourth quarter of a feel-good blowout, Nebraska's top three wide receivers were relaxing on the bench when Taylor Martinez's face appeared on the big screen.
Martinez had broken NU's all-time career passing record. The crowd cheered. The quarterback waved.
Then No. 3 walked over to the bench, where Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner waited for him. “You better thank us,” they said.
They were joking, but they're right. Nebraska's offense has become a frightening force in 2012, an impressive blend of power and finesse. Martinez deserves credit. So do Ameer Abdullah, the tight ends and the offensive line.
But topping the list is a receiving corps unlike anything Nebraska has ever produced — the best in school history.
Against Minnesota, those three wideouts collectively had their best day, catching 19 passes for 284 yards. Kenny Bell led the way with nine for 136, including two touchdowns.
What's remarkable about Nebraska's receivers isn't just their achievement, it's their improvement.
The first four years of the Bo Pelini era, Husker wideouts dropped more balls than an amateur juggler. Now they're not just making plays in traffic, they're running away from defensive backs. That doesn't count their downfield blocking, which allows Martinez and Abdullah to run so effectively outside.
“They are playing lights-out football,” said Ron Brown, who coached NU receivers for 17 years.
“These guys are legit pass-offense receivers who have learned to be extremely physical and run-block. I'm not sure that there's a group of receivers in the nation that are more versatile.”
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For most of Nebraska's history, you would've laughed had someone said receiver was the best position group on the team. Even when Bill Callahan tried to turn the Huskers into Bill Walsh's 49ers, one of the major glitches was wideout.
Callahan didn't have enough guys who could get yards after the catch. He definitely didn't have enough guys who could elevate and make a play with defenders on their backs.
Now, with the recent emergence of Turner, Nebraska has three.
“The thing I like is they're all a little bit different,” said defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, whose defensive backs tangle with the receivers in practice.
“Quincy is a big, strong guy who can get open by using his strength. You got Kenny Bell who can be a downtown threat and really put his foot in the ground and make cuts. And you got Jamal, who's more of a slasher.”
Against Penn State, Nebraska showed smash-mouth, leaning on Abdullah's and Martinez's legs. Saturday, in similar windy conditions, Tim Beck opted for finesse — throw to set up the run.
Minnesota corners played soft coverage. Martinez went to the line with a run-pass option and checked to short throws.
“That led to bigger plays with the play-action post,” Bell said. “That's the first time in four or five weeks that our game plan really fit what we saw on Saturday.”
Bell produced the highlights. In the first quarter, he beat single coverage for a 36-yard score. In the second, he made a diving catch for 29 yards, setting up an Imani Cross touchdown. In the third, sprung by an Enunwa block, Bell took a quick screen 30 yards to the end zone.
Afterward, Bell downplayed the success of the wide receivers — “It's called a team for a reason.” But he did say the offseason work has shown up on game days.
Nebraska's receivers want to be known as the Big Ten's best, Enunwa said. Days like Saturday, it's hard to argue otherwise.
Here's the best part: Bell and Turner are sophomores; Enunwa is a junior. All are scheduled to return in 2013. So are Martinez and Abdullah. Of Nebraska's 80 offensive plays against Minnesota, seniors had just three touches.
An era ended Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Hugs were shared, tears were shed. Fans waved goodbye to Tom Osborne, Rex Burkhead and Bo's first recruiting class.
As for the stars of the game?
You can thank them later. They're just getting started.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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>> Video: Jon Nyatawa's postgame analysis:
>> Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU's Kenny Bell after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU senior P.J. Smith after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: Tom Osborne leads NU onto the field:
>> Video: The Husker seniors are honored: