Plenty of backups see action as Huskers cruise to victory against Bethune-Cookman

Plenty of backups see action as Huskers cruise to victory against Bethune-Cookman
Devine Ozigbo ran for 110 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and got to rest during the second half. (CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Nebraska didn’t have a bye week, but it did have an event that resembled a football game.

And in that game, Nebraska got what it paid for. The Huskers (2-6) obliterated FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman (4-5) by a final score of 45-9.

Nebraska true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez only played in one half and finished 15 for 22 for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He set a school record for passing yards in a season by a freshman with 1,656 yards through eight games. Senior Devine Ozigbo ran for 110 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Stanley Morgan caught seven passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns.

Nebraska put in backups after halftime. Sophomore quarterback Noah Vedral took snaps with the second-team offense. He finished 2 for 9 for 29 yards and added 13 rushing yards and a touchdown. Wyatt Mazour had five carries for 55 yards.

As a team, NU averaged 7.3 yards per offensive play, and the Blackshirts held Bethune-Cookman to 166 total yards in the first half, but the Wildcats finished with 355.

The four-quarter affair was lopsided from start to finish. Ozigbo rumbled in from 17 yards out for NU’s first score of the day. JD Spielman returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown, NU’s first return touchdown since 2014. Martinez found Morgan through the air for touchdowns from 3 and 27 yards on consecutive drives. Those scores made it 28-3, and soon after the fourth touchdown, a Bethune-Cookman insider on the sideline was seen buying a Runza.

On the first play of the second quarter, a Bethune-Cookman receiver ran the wrong way after the first-quarter change. That drive finished with an interception by defensive tackle Peyton Newell. An 11-yard touchdown run by Maurice Washington and a 29-yard field goal from Barret Pickering made it 38-3 at the half.

Bethune-Cookman had first-and-goal from the 10 on their first drive of the third quarter, but proceeded to lose 29 yards and was forced to punt on fourth-and-goal.

That’s when Vedral led the Husker offense for the first time. The Huskers went three-and-out, but walk-on punter Isaac Armstrong flipped the field with a 73-yard punt to the Bethune-Cookman 9-yard-line. The Wildcats drove again into Nebraska territory, but Deointai Williams got the second turnover of the day with a pick in the end zone.

On Nebraska’s first drive of the fourth, Vedral finally found the end zone. He scrambled for 20 yards and dove in for the 45-3 lead.

Bethune-Cookman scored its first touchdown as time expired on a five-yard run.

Turnover turnaround part of big day for Husker starters, backups on defense

LINCOLN — For a few moments, Deontai Williams didn’t notice his position coach.

Surrounded by reporters in North Stadium, the junior safety was focused in on a question like it was a wobbly pass over the middle. Meanwhile, Travis Fisher stood behind the crowd grinning and making faces. He stuck out his tongue and shook his hands next to his grinning face.

The antics finally caught Williams’ eye, and he laughed right before declaring that the defense feels like it can “rain turnovers” with one third of the season still to come.

Anything felt possible for the Blackshirts on Saturday. Their three takeaways were a season high. They were a last-second Bethune-Cookman touchdown from allowing their lowest point total in seven years. They were responsible for one penalty — a Lamar Jackson personal foul in the third quarter.

“We’re trying to get momentum because it’s been a tough season so far,” true freshman cornerback Braxton Clark said. “But we’ll try to get momentum going into next week, hopefully, doing good things.

“We just wanted to play a complete game.”

Many of the feel-good sequences occurred after the game was well in hand. Fifth-year senior walk-on Matt Jarzynka was mobbed by teammates after his late sack. Former Navy SEAL and walk-on Damian Jackson made his Husker debut on the defensive line and special teams. A flood of other reserves and walk-ons also got onto the sunny Memorial Stadium turf.

But the moments that had Fisher breaking his normally stoic demeanor and defenders leaving with a swagger was winning the turnover battle for the first time this season.

“Turnovers are great,” coach Scott Frost said. “It’s good to see those in this game. I hope they carry over into some of the other games we have the rest of the year.”

Williams recovered a fumble in the second quarter after linebacker/safety JoJo Domann punched the ball free from receiver Jonathon Thomas. Domann said plays like that allow coaches to “indulge” in their defensive schemes.

Domann said NU Director of Player Personnel Ron Brown delivered a message before the game that stuck with him: You are what you put on tape, and you don’t want to look lazy on tape no matter who you’re playing.

“We really emphasized just getting to the ball and just trying to make plays, and we really did that today,” Domann said. “So I’m proud of the guys, for sure.”

The first takeaway was a combination of fortune and preparation. BC quarterback David Israel threw a pass that hit defensive lineman Ben Stille on his helmet as he was blocking the running back, and senior position mate Peyton Newell picked the ball out of the air in front of the Husker sideline.

Newell called it “the longest second of my life” as the ball hung in the air. Players said it was a result of the “zero-period” drill they do daily in practice, where they work on tipped balls.

“It’s fun,” Stille said of getting turnovers. “Doesn’t happen as often as it should the last couple of years I’ve been here. So we need to keep working at that, getting better at that, make that more of a regular thing.”

Defensive starters made a final imprint early in the third quarter before departing. Luke Gifford chased down Israel for a 21-yard sack as part of a surge that saw Bethune-Cookman go from first-and-goal at the 10 to fourth down from the 39. On the next drive, Williams flashed across the end zone and rose up for an interception after the Wildcats crept to the NU 23.

“I’ve been working on that play in that moment,” Williams said. “In one practice I had four picks, so I was very confident that I would get a pick today.”

Clark said there’s no better way for a group of defenders to settle in than the way they did Saturday.

“We be turnt or lit, that’s how you say it; that’s what we say,” Clark said. “But we love that. We just love on each other and we just like making plays with each other.”

After ‘whirlwind’ month, Noah Vedral scores first touchdown as a Husker

LINCOLN – Husker quarterback Noah Vedral had always dreamed of that first touchdown inside Memorial Stadium.

He got it Saturday on a 20-yard run.

“It feels still a little surreal,” the Wahoo Neumann graduate said after Nebraska’s 45-9 win over Bethune-Cookman.

The son of former Nebraska tight end Mike Vedral and nephew to three other former Huskers, Noah Vedral wouldn’t have guessed a year ago — when he played at Central Florida under Scott Frost — that he’d be on this stage.

When Frost headed to NU, Vedral followed. He planned to sit out this season with an NCAA-mandated transfer year but later petitioned the NCAA for immediate eligibility. Vedral learned just before the Oct. 13 game at Northwestern that the NCAA had approved the waiver so he could play this season.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Vedral said. “When I found out, it was a little bit crazy, a little hectic, but, after that, it just goes back to riding a bike. You get back into the offensive side of the ball, start familiarizing yourself with looking at the defense in an analytical way.”

Vedral started splitting second-team repetitions with Andrew Bunch in the last few weeks. He took all the snaps with the No. 2 offense earlier this week. Coaches told Vedral on Saturday that, if NU could insert a No. 2 guy, he’d be the one.

“He hadn’t played yet this year,” Frost said of Vedral. “Bunchy has gotten a shot this year.”

Vedral completed 2 of 9 passes and threw an interception. Frost said Vedral didn’t get much help from some of the players around him. The highlight of Vedral’s second half was the 20-yard touchdown run, which included a dive for the pylon.

Vedral figured he’d made it to the end zone.

“When you’ve played football long enough, you kind of know,” Vedral said.

Young tight ends record first catches

LINCOLN — Austin Allen heard the same message countless times after making the first catch of his career Saturday.

“It’s about time!”

The redshirt freshman from Aurora is inclined to agree. He redshirted last season, then felt he could have broken through a week ago against Minnesota but didn’t. On Nebraska’s third drive Saturday, he hauled in a pass from Adrian Martinez but couldn’t shed a defender at the Bethune-Cookman 3-yard line. The Huskers scored on the next play.

“I just told myself I gotta try and make a play after the catch,” Allen said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t. I probably should have scored, but it’s great to get that first catch here in the home state and as a redshirt freshman. There’s many more to come. It was just a great feeling.”

True freshman Katerian Legrone also broke through with his first career grab, good for 8 yards in the fourth quarter from Noah Vedral. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Atlanta made his first appearance in a Nebraska uniform.

Allen said the regular tight ends told Legrone they would do what they could to get him on the field. He just had to know his playbook and go make something happen.

“When we get a catch, he’s the first guy on the sideline that’s gonna hit you on the helmet or anything,” Allen said. “When we flipped the tables there and Katerian gets the catch, we were the first guys for him. It’s just a brotherhood we got going on in the tight end room.”

Youngsters flood field

Nebraska coaches took full advantage of the lopsided score and new NCAA redshirt rule while emptying their bench.

Four true freshmen played for the first time: running back Miles Jones and Legrone along with a pair of walk-on linebackers in Simon Otte (York) and Chris Cassidy (Lincoln Pius X). It increased the total to 13 true freshmen to see the field for Nebraska this season.

With players now able to appear in up to four games while retaining redshirt eligibility, roster management becomes even more important. Cornerback Braxton Clark played in his third game while receiver Andre Hunt was in his second. Another redshirt candidate is sophomore defensive end Deontre Thomas (four games), who didn’t play Saturday.

Also making their Husker debuts were multiple defensive linemen: redshirt freshman Chris Walker (Lincoln East), junior transfer Vaha Vainuku (Utah), junior Fyn Anderson (Lincoln Southeast), redshirt freshman Damian Jackson (former Navy SEAL and walk-on) and senior Matt Jarzynka (Loup City). Joining them were redshirt freshman outside linebacker Jordan Paup (Central City) and sophomore Vedral (UCF transfer from Wahoo).

Freshman ‘duck’ was raring to go

Jones would’ve loved to play sooner.

The freshman from Miramar, Florida, whom coaches have praised for months, finally saw the field against Bethune-Cookman. The four-star recruit had one carry for 5 yards and one catch for 21 yards.

“It was good to get my feet in the water and see how I’m going to perform next year,” Jones said.

Jones will not play in more than four games this year, and instead will take advantage of the new redshirt rule. It was unclear if he will play in three more games. But even if he doesn’t, Jones said, his playing time Saturday was valuable, even if it came later than he wanted.

Jones was hoping to play right away, but a shoulder injury, then an eye injury, kept him sidelined. But watching guys like JD Spielman, Stanley Morgan and Maurice Washington has helped Jones, who plays the Duck-R position which mixes reps at receiver and running back.

“It’s been good watching other guys play and see how it’s done the Nebraska way,” Jones said. “Just watching behind JD and all the other players up in my position, it’s been good experience for me.”

Jones said he practices with the wide receivers most of the time. It was always the plan to get him into this game, he said.

He wasn’t nervous. Just excited.

“I was just ready to get in front of 90,000 and show them what I can do for the first time.”

Stille focused on winning

Ben Stille has said all he wants to say over the Blackshirt saga.

Will he show up to practice Monday with a black jersey? Not important, he said. What’s important is win No. 2, and the roll the Huskers find themselves on.

“I was glad to see the offense clicking early,” Stille said. “We gotta clean some things up. They got too many yards for sure.”

Stille, from Ashland-Greenwood, said he was excited to see so many Nebraska natives get into the game. Particularly Matt Jarzynka, a walk-on who recorded a sack on his first play from scrimmage.

Nebraska forced three turnovers Saturday. Stille said he thinks that’s important moving forward.

“When we get into the colder months here, it’ll definitely be an emphasis to get the ball out, and it’ll help us win some games.”

Moving up the charts

Despite playing just one half of football, Martinez, Spielman and Morgan moved up in the record books Saturday.

With 213 passing yards from Martinez, he set a new record for passing yards in a season by a freshman. He has 1,656 passing yards this season in just seven games. He broke the previous record of 1,632, set by Taylor Martinez in 2010.

Spielman had 72 receiving yards on the day, which moved him into the top 10 in school history. He passed Matt Davison and Maurice Purify on the top 10 list. He’s also ninth in career receptions with 108.

And with two receiving touchdowns, Morgan is now one of only four players in school history to have 20 career touchdown receptions. He’s joined on that list by Johnny Rodgers, Nate Swift and Kenny Bell.

Quick hits

» Spielman’s punt return for a touchdown was NU’s first since the 2014 Iowa game. Spielman now has a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown, the first Husker to do so since former running back Ameer Abdullah. Spielman’s 1,516 career receiving yards put him at 10th in Husker history. He also became the third Husker to post back-to-back 50-catch seasons, joining Johnny Rodgers and Kenny Bell.

» Mick Stoltenberg — returning after missing a month of games — said his knee “held up” in the Bethune-Cookman game. Stoltenberg has battled chronic knee issues for the entirety of his Husker career. He also played a bit on Saturday at defensive end instead of nose tackle.

Of Martinez’s 22 passes, 15 were thrown to Spielman or Morgan, including a Bethune-Cookman interception. But Martinez said he isn’t specifically targeting the duo.

“I don’t really see those guys as much — it’s more who’s open,” Martinez said. “I’m going through my reads. If they happen to be there, they happen to be there. It’s not necessarily me favoring them. That’s just how the chips fall. Obviously I did force that one interception. Probably could have gone somewhere else with the ball.”

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