Published Saturday, December 28, 2013 at 10:46 pm / Updated at 12:39 am
McKewon: 10 moments that defined the Huskers in 2013

It was never boring.

Nebraska's football season took several hairpin turns. The Huskers endured injuries. They won in wild finishes. They took a few losses right on the chin.

They rolled up to the Big House and pulled out a big win, stuffing Michigan's long home winning streak in the process. They had a standout running back, a defense that grew up as the season wore on, two tender toes, and speculation in Husker Nation.

Here's NU in 2013, boiled down to 10 defining moments. Ten microcosms that spoke to the larger story of the season, from Hail Mary to hat swipe.

1. The drive

If most of 2013 was a long slog of disappointing injuries and turnovers for Nebraska's offense, one drive on an intimidating stage offered a firm, hopeful glimpse into the future. That's when redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong led a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown march to beat Michigan and snap the Wolverines' 19-game winning streak at the Big House. It was the most-watched Husker game according to TV ratings, and Armstrong put his best foot forward.

NU's defense held Michigan to a field goal after a fumbled punt, and then the Huskers started from their own 25. Armstrong converted a key fourth-and-2 in UM territory by completing a short pass to Kenny Bell that turned into a 26-yard gain. Three plays later, NU faced third-and-goal at the Michigan 5. Armstrong ran a short-side option to his left and found the Wolverines' best defender, Frank Clark, waiting. Armstrong froze. So did Clark. Meanwhile, running back Ameer Abdullah, while staying with the pitch, drifted forward. Armstrong faked once, froze again, then pitched a pass to Abdullah, who dove into the end zone. Touchdown, Huskers. Armstrong's first big delivery from dire straits. One day after his birthday.

“We wanted to quiet 110,000 fans — and that's what we did,” Armstrong said. “There's nothing like it. It's the best feeling ever.”

2. The long shot comes in

Air Jordan. Hail Jordan. Miracle at Memorial Stadium. Westercatch. Nebraska's Hail Mary win over Northwestern had many names and more images attached to it. NU trailed the Wildcats 24-21 when fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg marched the Huskers to the Northwestern 49. One play left. Husker coaches briefly discussed a hook-and-lateral. Coach Bo Pelini called for the Hail Mary.

Kellogg uncorked a pass that came down near the goal line, where it was tipped by a sea of Wildcat players surrounding Husker receiver Quincy Enunwa. The ball fluttered backward into the waiting hands of Jordan Westerkamp, who clutched it tight to his chest and bounded out of the end zone, where he was mobbed by almost every player but Kellogg and running back Ameer Abdullah, who ran in the opposite direction in celebration. Pelini's face wore no expression. He wasn't sure the touchdown would count. He said he had a flashback to the 2009 Big 12 championship, when Texas got an extra second put back on the clock to kick a field goal.

“I was sitting there thinking, 'Oh, my goodness, there's going to be a riot here if this thing gets called back,' ” Pelini said. There was a riot, all right. The happiest riot of positivity Memorial Stadium has seen in years.

3. 'It's not turf toe'

It's never been clear when Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez suffered a severe injury to toes on his left foot. Martinez said it happened in the season opener against Wyoming, but he played two more games on it before appearing after a 41-21 loss to UCLA in a walking boot. He'd sit out three games while coaches told reporters he had turf toe before returning for a 34-23 loss to Minnesota. After the game, Martinez informed reporters his big toe wasn't hurt. It was his second and third toes. He's not likely to take another snap at Nebraska, and he hasn't talked to the press since those five minutes after the Minnesota game. Martinez's prodigious career was cut short by two supremely tender toes.

Martinez's injury was the first in an onslaught to hit NU's offense. The offensive line took a particularly big blow this year, starting with All-America right guard Spencer Long, who was lost for the season when he tore his MCL early in the Purdue game. MCL injuries to tackle Jeremiah Sirles, guard Jake Cotton and center Cole Pensick would follow, causing all of them to miss portions of games. Then Mike Moudy went down with a shoulder injury. The wide receivers were hit hard, too, as Tyler Wullenwaber ended his career because of chronic injury issues. Jamal Turner missed most of the season with hamstring and calf injuries. Kenny Bell missed time. Tight end Jake Long missed half of the season with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong played on a gimpy ankle until he couldn't and missed the Iowa game.

The offense that limped its way through the final game was a shell of what offensive coordinator Tim Beck envisioned before the season. The shortage of firepower put more pressure on a young defense than it could sometimes bear.

4. Big man on campus

One of the miniature dramas that played out before preseason practice even began was the belated arrival of junior college defensive end Randy Gregory. He and his dad drove to town just days before camp was to begin. He didn't participate in fan day, but he was soon to become a fan favorite.

Gregory — a sophomore who finished with 9.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries — got better as the season wore on, and he wore out opposing offenses. Gregory was the face of a young defense that struggled through the first half of the schedule before finding its sea legs in the Big Ten.

The turning point: a sideline meeting early in the Northwestern game, when coaches agreed to scrap their game plan for an attacking scheme that young players felt more comfortable executing. From then on, NU gained momentum, finishing the regular season as the nation's No. 34 total defense. The defense bowed up in critical junctures against Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State to help an ailing offense make enough plays for crucial wins. And Gregory? He kept running down quarterbacks.

5. Dashing through the defense

The straw that stirred Nebraska's drink on offense, running back Ameer Abdullah, made his biggest statement in NU's first Big Ten game, a 39-19 win over Illinois. A 43-yard, weaving run through the Illini defense, punctuated by a dive at the goal line, showed off all of Abdullah's skills: patience, elusiveness, toughness, acceleration. In a long, trying year for the Husker O, Abdullah shined.

With one game left, he has 1,568 rushing yards — best in the Big Ten and the fifth-best season in NU history. He was All-Big Ten and a third-team All-American. The Huskers don't get a Hail Mary win over Northwestern if Abdullah doesn't dodge three tackles on fourth-and-15. And teammates raved about his leadership skills, voting him captain after the season and awarding him with Lifter of the Year for the second straight year.

When Abdullah arrived in Lincoln, he was the least-heralded of three highly recruited running backs. But he was the hungriest. In 2013, Abdullah dined like a Big Ten rushing king.

“He's an All-American on the field, he's an All-American off the field,” Pelini said of Abdullah.

6. Another fumble!

Early in the third quarter of its season-defining game against Michigan State, Nebraska was backed up at its own 1. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong didn't quite get the snap from center Mark Pelini, and pulling guard Cole Pensick seemed to hit the ball with his knee, which sent it bouncing up the field, where a Spartan recovered it. MSU tacked on a quick touchdown. NU's chances of winning the Big Ten title slipped away.

Turnovers have plagued the Huskers since before Bo Pelini even returned to Lincoln. Never did they seem to hurt NU more this season than against Michigan State, which converted five turnovers into a 41-28 win. Though NU appeared to have figured out MSU's vaunted defense, it couldn't hold on to the ball. And it didn't quite have the firepower to overcome all of the mistakes. Few teams would.

For the year, Nebraska finished minus-12 in turnover margin — 120th nationally and last in the Big Ten. Husker turnovers set up Big Ten opponents for short fields repeatedly. Though the defense occasionally held, it couldn't repeatedly keep teams like MSU and Iowa out of the end zone. Ball security appears to be a top priority heading into next year — again.

7. The first bad returns

Nebraska would suffer greater consequences during the season from its poor punt return unit. But the opening game against Wyoming underlined the problem.

The Cowboys' freshman punter, Ethan Wood, had never attempted a punt in high school, much less college, and he averaged 52 yards per punt that night, mostly because NU let him run around and uncork rugby kicks that rolled unabated until gravity stopped them. Jamal Turner was the Huskers' punt returner that night. NU would shuffle through a few more.

Eventually, the fumbles came. Jordan Westerkamp fumbled one against Michigan State that became a Spartan touchdown. And fumbles produced other foibles, such as Westerkamp fielding a ball at his own 2 in the Iowa game. For the year, NU averaged 3 yards per return, 123rd in the country.

The Huskers also had two ugly failures on fake punts. The first involved 300-pound defensive lineman Brodrick Nickens trying to pick up a first down and falling just short against UCLA. And punter Sam Foltz lost 8 yards in a botched attempt against Iowa. Mix in Michigan State's successful fake field goal run for a first down, and it wasn't the best year for Husker special teams.

8. Strength in the snow

Resilient. Nebraska football was nothing if not resilient in 2013. Through injuries, self-made miscues and rotten luck, NU pushed through and pulled out a few surprising road wins. Like the 23-20 overtime win at Penn State.

Amid the swirling snow in a frigid Beaver Stadium, the Huskers lost quarterback Tommy Armstrong early in the game to an ankle injury, and Ron Kellogg seemed woozy at times. His fumble set up an easy PSU touchdown. But Kenny Bell answered with a kickoff return for a touchdown. Later, a long Ameer Abdullah touchdown run was called back because of a dubious personal foul penalty on Sam Burtch. NU still tied the game and sent it into overtime.

There, Nebraska's young defense held and Penn State missed a field goal. The Huskers' Pat Smith — a walk-on from Western Illinois — made a field goal that appeared to win the game. Wait! False start on NU. Five more yards. Smith kicked it true again. Nebraska practically forced itself to win the game three different times, but it improved its record to 10-1 in Big Ten games decided by 10 or fewer points. Tough. Resilient.

9. The audiotape

It was one of Bo Pelini's best wins as a Nebraska coach, and NU's 34-27 victory over Ohio State in 2011 was the biggest comeback in school history. But as Pelini sat in a room where he thought his words would stay private, a hot microphone caught several off-color remarks about the media and Husker fans. While then-Athletic Director Tom Osborne learned of the recording in 2012 — and addressed it with Pelini then — Husker nation first heard it two days after a 41-21 loss to UCLA when the sports website Deadspin released it.

What followed were 48 tumultuous hours for Pelini — indisputably poor in his choice of words but wronged by the leak — and his staff. Two days after the audiotape's release, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst and Chancellor Harvey Perlman released a statement that “prepared to put the matter to rest,” while Osborne released his own statement detailing what he knew. Pelini's job was safe, but it created an air of tension and uncertainty that hung over the Huskers for the rest of the season.

10. The hat swipe and Eichorst's silence

Fans and reporters already knew NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst wasn't fond of public interviews. But as Nebraska's season wore on, Eichorst repeatedly declined to issue a statement of support or concern for Pelini. This silence made its own kind of noise, as speculation swirled about the safety of Pelini's job. Pelini, publicly, defended his tenure and said he felt comfortable about his security.

But his personal foul penalty in the 38-17 loss to Iowa — in which Pelini swiped his hat at an official following a poor pass interference call against NU — suggested the pressure had reached the head coach and the team. Pelini said as much after the game, when he said the media had hurt the team by pursuing the story. Even that Friday, Eichorst offered no comment, and more private audio surfaced this time of the Husker Sports Network's Greg Sharpe suggesting Pelini thought he might be fired. But Eichorst released a statement one day later that supported Pelini and looked forward to Pelini “continuing to lead our program in the future.”

A long season — equal parts frustrating and exhilarating for the Huskers — finally got some closure.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.



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