By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Nate Gerry left the field pumping his fist to a cheering Nebraska section in the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium.
Other Huskers followed as they trotted toward the visiting locker room. They were happily greeted by a few thousand fans clad in scarlet, a red just barely brighter to distinguish itself from those dressed in crimson.
In the same manner, the No. 10 Nebraska football team did just enough to distinguish itself from an Indiana team intent on proving its ready, that it belongs in the upper half of the Big Ten Conference.
The Huskers did it with grit, determination, brawn and patience.
No, this 27-22 victory before 48,254 fans didn’t follow a perfect script.
“Far from it,” Nebraska senior receiver Brandon Reilly said. “But anytime you can come into the Big Ten, score on the road and get a win, you’re happy with that.”
Pretty, it wasn’t, but these Huskers didn’t travel to the heart of the Hoosier state to win a beauty pageant.
A football game will do just fine, thank you.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said at the outset of his postgame news conference.
To be sure, no one play and no one player defined this victory, although Nebraska (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) counted on a collection of both to remain unbeaten through six games for the first time since 2001.
Like in the fourth quarter, when Nebraska, which had sputtered on offense unlike anything Riley said he’s seen this season, finally clicked. The Huskers ran 15 plays, and more importantly, 7 minutes, 42 seconds of clock during a drive that ended with a 40-yard Drew Brown field goal.
It left Indiana with only 45 seconds and needing a touchdown to go ahead. Safety Aaron Williams ended those dreams with Nebraska’s second interception of the day.
Nebraska had been clinging to a 24-22 lead with 8:26 remaining with a mere 97 rushing yards to its name. Behind running back Terrell Newby, the Huskers mustered 55 rushing yards on their final, game-clinching drive.
“That’s an indicator of what this group of kids is like, when they have their backs to the wall and have to do something to win a game,” Riley said. “There’s so much football that we have to do better, and at the same time, I wouldn’t trade this group for anything, the way they fight and finish.”
Still, why was Nebraska able to run the ball late after it couldn’t for more than three quarters?
“I think we wore them out a little bit,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We had a terrible time on first and 10. We had a lot of second and longs. We struggled with all the pressures, handling that stuff.
“I don’t think we played well a lot of the game really at any position. I just thought as a collective group we were just average. Give them credit. That’s a good defense. I knew it was going to be hard.”
It’s a defense Urban Meyer, coach of No. 2 Ohio State, said was the best his Buckeyes had seen all season, including Oklahoma.
“I can see why he said that,” Langsdorf said.
Nebraska also converted fourth-and-short near midfield on the drive, a decision Langsdorf said was a no-brainer, given the lack of field position the Huskers likely would’ve gained with a punt.
Riley said he also wanted to take control of the game and leave its fate in the hands of his team, not Indiana.
Let Tommy Armstrong Jr. take care of things.
“Tommy came over and went right to Coach Riley and said, ‘Give me the ball, I’m going to get it,’ ” Reilly said. “We have confidence in him every time he has the ball. There was no doubt in my mind we were going to get it.”
A hobbled Armstrong barely made the first down, which required a measurement. Armstrong said he was fine as left the news conference with a noticeable limp.
Nebraska, missing wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter, who both remained in Lincoln with injuries, counted on two big plays in the passing game to score its only two offensive touchdowns.
In the first quarter, Reilly surpassed 1,000 career receiving yards when he lay on the ground as he hauled in a ball that ricocheted off his defender and into his hands for a 41-yard gain. That led to a 4-yard Newby touchdown run.
“It kind of fell in the right spot,” Reilly said. “I just saw it coming down, kind of hit his head, and it hadn’t hit the ground yet, so I had to go get it.”
Armstrong, who surpassed 8,000 career passing yards, becoming only the 20th Big Ten quarterback to reach that mark, hit sophomore receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. for a 72-yard touchdown pass.
A normal 72-yard pass it was not.
Armstrong, as he did often Saturday, was scrambling on the play and found Morgan, who caught the ball near midfield as two Indiana defenders collided, allowing Morgan to roam free for a touchdown.
“That’s kind of football in a nutshell,” Riley said. “It’s kind of a good example of Tommy’s resiliency and ability. It was funny, but it was kind of the best we could do today, scramble around and make something happen and win the game.”
Riley gave equal kudos to Morgan.
“He’s a competitor and kind of has that awareness beyond his years, and he’s a sophomore who didn’t redshirt,” Riley said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him. So does our whole team.”
Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, held Indiana to 88 rushing yards. The Hoosiers, for a bit, threw the Blackshirts off-kilter when mobile quarterback Zander Diamont had success in the zone read in the second quarter.
But Nebraska adjusted, and linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said a week off helped the Blackshirts clean some mistakes in the running game.
“I think it was more paying attention to certain things we were making mistakes on back in the first couple of games,” Rose-Ivey said. “A lot of the stuff they ran today was Oregon, Fresno State, Northwestern. A lot of what we did in the bye week is went back an assessed what plays kind of gave us problems. It showed here, especially in the run game, what we were able to stop and what we were able to do.”
Linebacker Josh Banderas had a season-high 11 tackles and safety Nate Gerry made sound tackles time and again in snuffing out screen plays. Cornerback Chris Jones deflected a fourth-down pass and also returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown, both in the first quarter, as Nebraska jumped to 17-0 lead.
But as is usually the case, winning didn’t come easy for the Huskers.
“We’re kind of dinged up. But we’re coming out of here with a win. It’s a good feeling.,” Reilly said. “Seemed like last year we struggled toward the end, and this year, the fourth quarter is basically our quarter and we find a way to win each week.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.