LINCOLN — Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
Two yards and a cloud of dust.
Three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.
Some folks around these parts used to make fun of the Big Ten Conference back in the old days, back before Nebraska shunned the Big 12 Conference and joined the 11 other teams to form the new Big Ten.
You can say what you want about the Big Ten, but Saturday’s 24-3 Nebraska win over Michigan State was Big Ten football at its finest.
“It was an ugly game,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It was two yards and a cloud of dust.”
Or three yards and a cloud of dust. Nebraska averaged 3.3 yards per running play. Michigan State, 3.4.
It was ugly — ugly and beautiful at the same time. The Big Ten has, for the most part, never been about pretty-boy football. Tom Osborne used to say you have to run the ball to win in November in the old Big Eight.
That’s even more true in the Big Ten, and that’s what Nebraska did most of the game. The Huskers, with 190 rushing yards, were way under their per-game average of 261 yards, but they were playing against one of the top defensive teams in the nation.
“It was a physical, physical ball game,” NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. “I tell you what, that Ohio State game and this game here are probably two of the more physical games that we’ve played.”
Get used to it. There’s more of that coming down the line, but it might be just what this Nebraska team is best suited to do.
Rex Burkhead certainly fits into a physical running offense. The Husker junior (134 yards on 35 carries) isn’t into finesse or anything like that. He’s a power runner who can take the ball outside as well.
He’s perfect for the Huskers in the Big Ten. And quarterback Taylor Martinez wasn’t bad either.
The first half left much to be desired, but Martinez came back with a good second half to finish 7-for-13 passing for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Yes, ugly stats by some standards, but that’s just the kind of game it was.
It’s a team game, and for maybe the first time this year the Husker offense, defense and special teams all worked together the way head coach Bo Pelini wants them to.
“Having a back like Burkhead and having Taylor manage the game like he did, that was kind of our recipe,” Cotton said. “But you have to put that with our defense and special teams because that recipe doesn’t work unless it’s a partnership with both sides of the football because we couldn’t have done what we did unless the defense was playing that kind of game.”
The Huskers will be watching film on Sunday. They’ll see some good things, but there were many offensive plays that didn’t work.
You have to credit a very good Michigan State defense. The Spartans were a physical bunch that made Burkhead earn every yard he got.
“We’re going to watch the film, and it’s not going to be pretty because there were a lot of bad plays,” Cotton said. “We didn’t get any movement on a number of those plays. Little by little, we got better and having a guy like Rex Burkhead who’s able to keep putting his foot in the ground makes us that much better too.”
The defense made the Husker offense better as well. You can’t use a conservative offensive game plan unless the defense is doing its job.
Michigan State had 12 first downs, 101 yards rushing and just 86 passing from a team that was third in the conference in passing yards per game.
“It was not a pretty win,” Cotton said. “It was a lot of handoffs and a little throwing, but you can’t do that unless your defense is doing what they were doing, so they allowed us to do what we needed to do to win, and hopefully we also took some time off the clock.”
It was Big Ten Conference football at its best, or worst. Most of those people who used to make fun of the Big Ten aren’t doing that anymore.
Just watch these games. They are as tough and physical as they get.
There may not be anybody in the conference who could challenge Alabama or LSU, but then who can?
The Huskers have four games left in the regular season. Win all four, and they’ll be going to Indianapolis as the Legends Division champion.
Northwestern will be a different kind of challenge next, but then it’s a road trip to Penn State for another physical football game.
It could be sort of a replay of Saturday’s game. If so, the Huskers are ready.
“This was an old-school game,” Cotton said. “I don’t know what the stats were. Two good defenses and two physical football teams kind of slugging it out. There wasn’t a lot of prettiness from our standpoint. We just knew that the way to beat a physical football team is to be physical yourself.”
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.