LINCOLN — Having finished his press conference after a rough week in his professional career and the “worst performance” of the year from a defense he oversees, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini lingered near a black punching bag that hung from the ceiling of NU's weight room.
He put both hands to his waist and watched quarterback Tommy Armstrong offer his opening comments after his first career start and the Huskers' tension-breaking 59-20 win over South Dakota State.
“Pretty much a fun experience,” Armstrong said.
It must have been music to Pelini's ears in the wake of an ugly loss to UCLA last weekend and Deadspin releasing a two-year-old, private, profane rant expressing his frustration with media and fans. Husker football teetered a bit on the brink of chaos last week. And through a quarter Saturday, so did a defense seemingly lost on how to stop the Jackrabbits.
Armstrong, fellow quarterback Ron Kellogg and the rest of the Huskers' offense answered with an unwavering balance.
Of the 645 yards NU gained in front of 90,614 at Memorial Stadium, 335 were on the ground. Armstrong and Kellogg combined for 305 passing yards and Ryker Fyfe added 5 while spelling an injured Taylor Martinez, who wore a headset, T-shirt and shorts. It's the first time in school history Nebraska cleared the 300-yard hurdle in both categories in the same game, and it's the most yards gained in the Pelini era.
Ten ballcarriers. Eleven pass-catchers. Seven Huskers had a hand in scoring touchdowns. It was an FCS feast for the offense as the Blackshirts stubbed their toes, giving up 465 yards and 25 first downs.
“On the offensive side of the ball, we had an attack mentality,” Pelini said, “which is kind of the opposite as what we played defensively.”
Exhibit A: The first quarter. Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah ripped off 24 yards on the game's first play. Two plays later, Armstrong — the first starting quarterback other than Martinez since November 2010 — hit Abdullah on a wheel route for a 28-yard gain. Imani Cross scored on the next play. Red balloons. Begin the boat race.
SDSU (3-1) answered with ease. Four plays, 75 yards, with FCS All-America running back Zach Zenner scoring a 40-yard touchdown.
Armstrong led a 66-yard touchdown drive, capped by another Cross touchdown. The Jackrabbits countered with a 71-yard touchdown drive. Zenner again. He had 123 yards rushing in the first quarter and 202 for the game. SDSU led 17-14 after 15 minutes.
On the sideline, Pelini held more than one fiery chat. He pulled several players early in the game, including freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. After it, he hadn't cooled down much.
“To start that football game, we had missed assignment after missed assignment,” Pelini said. “I know we're young and, trust me, there were some young guys who made those mistakes. But that can't be our excuse.”
“We're not focused enough,” said defensive end Randy Gregory, who had a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second half. “We didn't come out in the first half with a sense of urgency and it showed. It's kind of the same way we've been coming out in the second half the last few games. And I don't know how to fix it. I don't know what to say to the guys. I don't think anybody knows what to say.”
Unlike the week before, the offense had an answer against a Jackrabbit defense considerably less athletic and complex than UCLA's.
Kellogg, a former walk-on from Omaha Westside, led NU's third touchdown drive. Armstrong led the fourth, hitting sophomore walk-on Sam Burtch from Elmwood-Murdock for a pretty 16-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone. After Stanley Jean-Baptiste intercepted SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner, Kellogg fired a 23-yard touchdown to Utica walk-on Tyler Wullenwaber. NU (3-1) led 38-17 at halftime.
“I don't know how many games you can win when you don't stop a team,” said Jackrabbit coach John Stiegelmeier, who shared a long postgame handshake with Pelini.
Nebraska's offense looked more efficient with two backup quarterbacks than it had with Martinez through three games. Part of that was due to the opponent — statistically, SDSU was a middle-of-the-pack FCS defense — but offensive coordinator Tim Beck said a narrowed practice focus helped, too. Beck installed fewer plays for the game plan, and players practiced those plays more often. The Husker running game, which averaged 6.6 yards per carry, seemed far smoother as a result.
“I felt like I could call the game better,” Beck said. “There was never a 'where's the next play coming?' or 'try to keep them off balance.' We kept them off balance. Running, throwing, two-back, one-back, empty at times, three-back. We still did multiple stuff. You could see it bothering them.”
Still, he needed Armstrong and Kellogg to execute the plan. And neither in his collegiate career had more extensive playing time than both did Saturday. Armstrong completed 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. Kellogg hit 8 of 9 for 136 and a score. Armstrong also ran for 38 yards, executing the zone read and option plays with skill.
“Me coming out and making the coaches happy — being able to come out here and do my thing because Taylor couldn't play — I think I did a real good job,” Armstrong said.
“He's just a gamer,” Beck said of Armstrong, a redshirt freshman from Cibolo, Texas. “He thrives in situations like this. He played extremely well, as did Ronnie. They've been playing well for the last year and a half.”
Whether Armstrong or Kellogg or both are needed for the Big Ten opener against Illinois Oct. 5 depends on Martinez's turf toe injury on his left foot. Turf toe can be difficult to shake.
“I want him to be 100 percent when he comes back,” Pelini said. “He's a lot better. He's feeling better. But that's going to be up to how he progresses over the next few days and what the doctors and trainers tell me.”
Either way, NU's offense enters a bye week having found a rhythm, Beck said. Based on Pelini's comments, the defense will spend its off week looking to patch the leaks at every level.
“I bet you coaches across the country are saying the same thing I am,” Pelini said. “I don't know if they say it in public the way I do. At the end of the day, we've got a lot of work to do. All you can do is roll up your sleeves, go to work and try to make each day better.”
Preferably without the drama that accompanied last week.
* * *
• Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after the game:
• Video: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong talks after the game:
• Video: Nebraska QB Ron Kellogg talks after the game:
• Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
• Video: Jack Hoffman and others get their own tunnel walk: