On a day when hometown heroes were honored in a stirring reprise of the epic 2001 Rice game Tunnel Walk, it seemed fitting and proper that Luke Reimer stepped forward and played the best game of his still-young career.
If you like stout defense led by a local walk-on and numerous tributes to the military and first responders, this game, a 28-3 Nebraska victory over Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference, played in sweltering heat on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, was just for you.
Reimer, the sophomore walk-on linebacker from Lincoln North Star, was very much on point, making 16 tackles, including seven solo stops. He broke up a pass and grabbed his first career interception, which set up a touchdown.
The first half was a fistfight, the type of game usually played on cold days in November, at least until Adrian Martinez hit Samori Toure on a sweet crossing route that broke wide open — the first of their two 68-yard touchdown connections — with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter to give the Huskers a 14-0 halftime edge, but because the Husker offensive line was ineffective all day long, it was still a 14-3 game after three quarters.
This game was notable in that Scott Frost and his team seemed content to win it the “Big Ten way,” to ride a tough defensive effort and keep from making too many critical mistakes. Whether they succeeded in mistake avoidance is certainly questionable. More on that in a minute.
The Blackshirts showed they can win the Huskers a tossup game — maybe a couple — if the offense can simply avoid turnovers and the kicking game can mix some good with the bad. Look for the Huskers to defer whenever they win a coin toss from here on out. The defense definitely is the strength of this team.
Since I’ve been known to cuss out the Husker offense for getting yards and not points, it’s time to praise the defense for keeping the Bulls out of the end zone despite letting them move the ball up and down the field several times. NU had seven pass breakups and seven quarterback hurries, and some of those plays came at important times. Credit guys like Ashland’s Ben Stille and Omaha Burke’s Nick Henrich for that. The Huskers kept an opponent under 400 total yards for the seventh consecutive game, something that hasn’t happened since the days of Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick. As Frost noted in his postgame press conference, that will be hard to do in Norman, Oklahoma, next week.
Now, about those critical mistakes. The offense didn’t turn the ball over, but penalties nullified three touchdowns. Frost, to his credit, stayed with the running game even though the o-line was punchless and the Husker running backs were averaging less than two yards per carry until the fourth quarter. The final scoreboard read, NU quarterbacks, 10 carries for 114 yards, NU running backs, 31 carries for 106 yards.
Give Martinez a gold star for patience. Despite a scoreless first quarter, despite another flat performance by his offensive line, he didn’t try to force anything. He went 13 for 19 for 242 yards and a pair of 68-yard touchdown passes to Samori Toure, with no turnovers. He didn’t try to do too much when things started breaking down around him. This was one of the better performances by the California native, not because he became the fifth Big Ten quarterback in history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 6,000, but because he didn’t beat himself on a day when he could have.
Then again, Martinez did conjure up something from nothing on a 71-yard scramble that (speaking of 2001 flashbacks), looked a lot like Eric Crouch juking and jiving his way down the field. It set up the Huskers’ first touchdown, a short plunge by Gabe Ervin with 6:56 left in the second quarter.
Now, about that help for Martinez. I think the youngish offensive line has talent. It didn’t show against Buffalo, which has a good defensive front. It’s unclear if they’ll get a clue about harnessing and unleashing that talent while Martinez still plays for the Big Red. That’s the main story line for the rest of the 2021 season.
If the Huskers continue to get subpar play from both their o-line and their kicking game, there’s no way they’ll reach .500 this year, not after allowing that very winnable season opener in Champaign to slip through their fingers. There were bright moments in the kicking game against Buffalo, though, including the first highly effective punt of Daniel Cerni’s career, plus four of four extra points made, three touchbacks in five kickoffs by Brendan Franke and two Buffalo kickoff returns for just 39 yards. Three missed field goals and another curious monstrosity of a punt return that accounted for the Huskers’ only turnover were the negatives.
For this year’s kicking game, the best Husker Nation can hope for is that the good will outweigh the bad. Cerni was credited for three punts inside the 20, including a beautiful 39-yard pitching wedge that was downed at the Bulls’ 2-yard line. Four plays later, Reimer made his interception, returning it 22 yards to the 1, where Ervin punched in his second touchdown to give NU a 21-3 lead early in the fourth quarter. A few timely, small victories like that could turn a 5-7 season into a 7-5 season.
Through it all, the Blackshirts rose above the chaos. When you force the opponent to throw 50 passes, it’s a good sign. They never allowed the Bulls within sniffing distance of the goal line, not even after that muffed punt that set up the Bulls on the Husker 39-yard line with 7:02 left in the game. They responded with a three-and-out.
Was Reimer prophetic when he made this comment after the game?
“I mean, no matter what we just have to go out there with the mindset that we have to go win the game,” Reimer said. “It doesn't matter what the offense is doing: if they're scoring, if they're kind of sputtering around. We'll be like, we have to go out with a mindset that they can't score, they can't get anything. So I thought we did a pretty good job with that today.”