Michael Bonner, CR Gazette –
IOWA CITY – Bo Pelini had ammunition left on his sideline, but wanted to dip into it only in his team really “needed it.” As walked to the locker room at halftime, the Nebraska head coach knew he couldn’t wait any longer.
His team trailed Iowa 7-3, but it was time to unleash the reserve of reinforcements he possessed sitting on the sideline.
“I said how do you feel about it, Rex said, ‘Let’s go,’” Pelini said. “I’m glad we did.”
Reigning All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead trotted onto the field for the Cornhusker’s first play of the second half and the crowd behind him ignited with a roar. It was the first of many from the faithful, who made the trip to Iowa City from Omaha, as the senior carried Nebraska to a 13-7 win.
Tapping into the Cornhuskers’ most-potent weapon came as a surprise to even the highest of players on the chain of command.
“I had no clue. I just looked back there (in the huddle) and saw him,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said. “I was like awesome.”
The Iowa sideline didn’t share the same sentiment.
“In my mind, he’s really a dynamic player. He just changes the tempo of things out there a little bit. That’s what good players do,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Again, they’ve got a lot of good players. To me, when he’s in there, they run a little different.”
Pelini and Company kept Burkhead sidelined since Oct. 20, when he reaggravated a knee injury against Northwestern. Burkhead didn’t immediately return to last year’s form that saw him total the most yards by a Nebraska back since 1997, but he got there.
“Everything was moving fast right when I got out there,” Burkhead said. “I guess being off for five weeks or whatever it’s been, you kind of have to get used to it again. But I started getting more carries and started getting the flow of the game and it felt good.”
Nebraska took its opening possession of the second half 30 yards for a 52 yard field goal to pull to within one of Iowa. Burkhead carried the ball five times for 12 yards.
It allowed the Plano, Texas native to break out of the rust a month on the sideline left. The more Nebraska fed him the ball, the more yards he chewed up. After a nine-yard third quarter, Burkhead finished the game with a 60 yard fourth quarter on ten carries.
His performance even his teammates on the other side of the ball took notice.
“We were joking about, the fourth quarter Rex is back,” Nebraska linebacker Alonzo Whaley said. “Because you know how he gets strong in the fourth quarter as the game goes.”
The old Burkhead was hard to miss and even more difficult to stop. With 12:03 left in the game, Iowa pinned Nebraska at its own one yard line. Burkhead carried the ball three times for 21 yards, none more impressive than a nine yard run that advanced the ball from the 2 to the 11. Iowa stuff the running back within three yards of the line, but Burkhead moved the piled ahead eight more yards.
“That one coming out, where we’re backed up against the goal line, pushing the pile a little bit, starting from then, I started seeing things a little bit better, and started to get going” Burkhead said.
Nebraska ended the first half with 68 yard rushing on 23 carries, less than three yards a pop. On seven less carries, Burkhead managed to eclipse that number. He ran the ball 16 times for 69 yards and scored Nebraska’s only touchdown of the game.
Only Iowa running back Mark Weisman topped Burkhead’s 75 all-purpose yards. The difference, Weisman played all four quarters and carried the ball 13 more times.
After the game, Pelini didn’t discuss the numbers, yards per carry or anything physically Burkhead contributed.
“I just thought it was more something that would give us an emotional boost,” Pelini said. “He’s obviously a huge part of our team. He gives us an emotional lift and I thought he did that.”
He also carried the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten championship game, where they will face Wisconsin. Saturday, Burkhead didn’t concern himself with the mental or physical aspects of the game. He didn’t have much to say about the Badgers either. For him, after five weeks of primarily watching, it was finally nice to play.
“Just glad to be out there with the guys again,” Burkhead said. “I missed being out there. Just getting out there and having just with the guys and most importantly putting a W on the board.”