LINCOLN — Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown has been looking for a lift in short-yardage situations, especially with the continued absence of injured senior I-back Rex Burkhead.
Bruising I-back Imani Cross might be ready to carry that load.
“I’m trying to get him to be more of a beast,” Brown said. “He hasn’t learned how to use every ounce of strength he has yet.”
Cross was a vital component in Nebraska’s 267-yard rushing effort during a 32-23 comeback win against Penn State Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The freshman scored on a 1-yard run off left guard with 11 minutes, 48 seconds left in the third quarter. Then Cross added a 2-yard scoring run up the middle 2:11 later to turn a two-touchdown deficit into a game tied at 20.
“It does feel good when you’re in the end zone,” Cross said. “The pulling guards did a great job. They’ve done a great job all year.”
Cross entered the game with four carries for 20 yards in five Big Ten games. Yet Nebraska put the ball in his hands five times in the third quarter. Cross had three rushing attempts in the final 15 minutes.
“For the most part, he did pretty well,” Brown said. “As young players, the biggest area for improvement is keeping your pads down. He’s learning. He did a great job on four of those runs.”
Cross is aware of Brown’s pad level assessment.
“It’s something he harps on a lot with me,” Cross said. “I’ve been told that since high school.”
Cross had 22 yards as Nebraska (8-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten Conference) averaged 4.7 yards a carry against Penn State (6-4, 4-2), which ranks 26th nationally in run defense at 123.6 yards per game.
Sophomore Ameer Abdullah rushed for 116 yards and quarterback Taylor Martinez added 104 to mark the ninth time in 10 games that Nebraska has rushed for at least 200 yards. The Huskers lead the Big Ten with 269.6 yards per game on the ground.
Nebraska’s ground attack led to a 34:19-25:41 time of possession advantage.
“I think going in, I was a little surprised in the first half that they went as much tempo as they did because I thought (Penn State) would want to limit the amount of touches our offense got,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I thought the time of possession and our ability to keep drives going and win that part of the game was big for us. You can find with the turnover ratio and that was big in the game.”
Nebraska won the turnover battle at plus-1. Each team lost two fumbles. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin had the game’s lone interception, which set up the second Cross touchdown to cap a two-play, 4-yard drive.
“They just kept fighting,” Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris said. “We were fighting, too, but they made more plays than we did. The losses that we’ve had have been all about the second half.”