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Lincoln - Lots of defense. Success on special teams, and enough offense to notch another win. That was the recipe for Nebraska's eighth win of the season, as the Huskers earned a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game with a 17-3 victory over Kansas State on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Playing in front of 85,988 fans and an ESPN national television audience, Nebraska captured the Big 12 North Division title by beating the Wildcats with a suffocating defense led by All-America candidate Ndamukong Suh. The defensive tackle, playing in his final game as a Husker at Memorial Stadium, registered nine tackles, including two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a pair of pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
Suh was far from the only senior who made an impact on Senior Night at Memorial Stadium. Senior safety Larry Asante had a huge night with a team-leading 10 tackles to go along with an interception and a huge hit to force fumble and keep Kansas State out of the end zone early in the third quarter. Senior linebacker Phillip Dillard added eight tackles, including a nine-yard sack and a forced fumble of his own to stop a KSU second-half drive.
The big plays by the Blackshirts preserved a 14-point win that included some big plays by the Husker offense as well.
After leading 10-3 at the half, Nebraska wasted little time in making it a two touchdown margin in the second half. On NU's opening drive, Roy Helu Jr. carred two times for eight yards to set up a 3rd-and-2 at the NU 38. On the second play, KSU safety Tysyn Hartman, who in the second quarter intercepted a Zac Lee pass in the end zone to stop a Husker threat, went down with an injury.
With Hartman off the field, Lee tested the Wildcat secondary and connected with Niles Paul on a 47-yard strike to give the Huskers a first down at the KSU 14. Helu burst through the right side of the defense on the next play and sprinted into the end zone to give the Huskers a 17-3 lead just 1:39 into the third quarter.
Suh and company did the rest for the Huskers, while Helu continued his climb in the Nebraska rushing record book. Helu finished the night with 26 carries for 95 yards to become the 25th Husker in history to rush for 2,000 or more career yards. Helu also posted the 29th 1,000-yard rushing season in NU history. Helu heads into the regular-season finale at Colorado on Friday with 2,071 career yards, including with 1,057 yards on the season.
Kansas State tried to answer with a quick march of its own on the ensuing driving, pushing the ball to the NU 13. KSU quarterback Grant Gregory then hit Keithen Valentine across the middle, who appeared headed in for a touchdown, but Asante delivered a crushing hit at the 1, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Prince Amukamara at the NU 5 with 8:52 left in the third quarter.
The Huskers were unable to move and the Wildcats took over again at the NU 45. KSU again pushed into the NU red zone, but the Blackshirts held and Josh Cherry missed a 32-yard field goal with 5:26 left in the quarter. The Wildcats were able to move the ball in the second half, but never threatened to score again, as the Blackshirts ended their home season without allowing a second-half point in the final three home games.
Kansas State finished with 293 yards of total offense, including 140 yards on the ground and 153 through the air. Nebraska managed just 267 total yards, and notched just one first down after its opening drive of the second half. Lee completed 13-of-19 passes for 166 yards with one touchdown and one interception for the Huskers, while Gregory connected on just 11-of-31 passes for 126 yards and an interception for the Wildcats. KSU's Daniel Thomas led all rushers with 99 yards on 19 carries.
Paul led the Husker receivers with four catches for 82 yards, while McNeill added three catches for 26 yards and a score. In all, seven Husker receivers had at least one catch, including freshman I-back Rex Burkhead, who made his return to the field for the Huskers for the first time since the Missouri game. Burkhead had one catch for nine yards to go along with six carries for 17 yards in his return from a foot injury.
In a fast-moving first half, Nebraska jumped to a 10-3 lead on the first drive of the second quarter when Lee hit McNeill on a 17-yard touchdown strike with 12:02 left in the half. Lee's pass to McNeill capped a seven-play drive that covered 57 yards in just 2:46.
The two teams exchanged field goals in the first quarter, as the Wildcats moved 58 yards in 10 plays to set up a Cherry 44-yard field goal on their opening drive. Nebraska then covered 56 yards on its opening possession in a season-long 7:37 capped by Alex Henery's 34-yard field goal. NU's opening possession also lasted a season-long 16 plays.
Nebraska made a serious threat to extend its lead late in the first half, but on 2nd-and-Goal from the 5, Lee was sacked after a play-action fake for a 12-yard loss. On the next play, Lee's pass intended for Paul in the end zone was intercepted by KSU's Hartman and returned to the KSU 42.
The Husker defense returned the favor with an Asante interception to end the Wildcat threat, but the Wildcats forced a punt with just over a minute left in the half. KSU drove to the NU 34, but Cherry's 51-yard field goal attempt missed short to end the half.
In addition to hitting a 34-yard field goal and connecting on a pair of extra points, Henery punted six times for a 45.5-yard average that included a mammoth 61-yard punt that skipped out of bounds at the KSU 3 to flip the field in the second half. In the first half, he pinned the Wildcats at their own 2 on a low liner than hit at KSU 4 and made right turn to go out of bounds.
The Husker coverage units also contained KSU special teams standout Brandon Banks, holding him to just 50 yards on three kickoff returns and 27 yards on a pair of punt returns.
Nebraska closes the 2009 regular season on the road this Friday, when the Huskers battle the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. with live national television coverage on ABC.
Final: Nebraska 17, Kansas State 3
First Quarter (3-3)
KSU - 9:26 - Josh Cherry 44 FG - 10 plays, 58 yards, 5:30, KSU 3-0
NU - 1:44 - Alex Henery 34 FG - 16 plays, 56 yards, 7:37, 3-3
Second Quarter (NU, 10-3)
NU - 12:02 - Mike McNeill 17 pass from Zac Lee (Henery kick) - 7 plays, 57 yards, 2:46, NU 10-3
Third Quarter (NU, 17-3)
NU - 13:21 - Roy Helu Jr. 14 run (Henery kick) - 4 plays, 09 yards, 1:33, NU 17-3
Fourth Quarter (NU, 17-3)
Final: Nebraska 17, Kansas 3
Time of Game: 3:01