LINCOLN — Imani Cross is starting to make his mark as a short-yardage specialist for the Nebraska football team.
Cross has had two touchdowns in each of the past two games to bring his season total to six. That’s just two behind team leaders Ameer Abdullah and Taylor Martinez with eight each.
The 6-foor-1, 225-pound freshman from Gainsvile, Ga., now has 289 yards on 42 carries for an average of 5.6 per try. That seems like a little more than just a short-yardage specialist.
“Imani is tremendous,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Monday. “I know you guys have probably got to know him. I’m sure you’ve interviewed him. He is a tremendous young man and somebody who has a great work ethic. He’s tough, he’s a team guy, he’s unselfish, he’s got all the qualities and characteristics you want in a football player and you put that together with the size and strength he brings to the table.”
Cross had never been to a Husker football game until he ran through the tunnel for the opener this season against Southern Miss. He made his official visit during basketball season.
The weather has warmed up this week, but a week ago on a chilly Monday morning, Cross came to the press box in a heavy winter coat with a stocking cap pulled down over his ears.
Coming from Georgia, you might think Cross couldn’t like the cold, but that’s not the case.
“I think it’s kind of cold,” Cross said that morning. “I like the cold a little bit to be honest, because I was always in the heat. It was always 110 degrees. It was good to get away from it.”
Pelini is glad Cross decided to join the Husker program after looking at schools like East Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Central Florida and Vanderbilt.
“I think he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he is going to be down the line of his career,” Pelini said. “I think he is going to be a tremendous and significant contributor for the next three years after this year.”
Martinez takes control
There has been no quarterback controversy in Lincoln this year, not from the fans and obviously not from the coaches.
Taylor Martinez is the guy. The junior has rushed for 792 yards (5.7 per carry) and eight touchdowns. He’s completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 2,420 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
Pelini didn’t want to comment on whether Martinez would be awarded any Big Ten All-Conference honors when those are announced.
“Like I said, I’m glad he is our quarterback,” Pelini said. “He’s had a heck of a year and he is still growing. He’s not perfect but no one who plays this game ever really is. He has played at an extremely high level and I think he has gotten better as the season has gone on and we are going to need that to continue.”
Martinez’s success go well beyond the numbers he’s produced. He is now completely in control of Tim Beck’s offense. It wasn’t that way last year, but that’s understandable because the whole team and most of the offensive staff were learning Beck’s system in 2011.
Pelini said Martinez improved his decision making, his command and he is getting the Huskers in and out of plays better this season.
“I don’t think we would be in the position if he wasn’t playing at such a high level,” Pelini said. “He brought us back in a couple of games and the composure he has played with. He has played at a very high level in a lot of areas.”
In 2009, the Huskers lost back-to-back home games to Texas Tech (31-10) and Iowa State (9-7). They then won five straight games to win North Division of the Big 12 Conference to earn a trip to Dallas for the conference championship game.
Sound familiar? This year, the Huskers have won five straight since a 63-38 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 6. They can clinch a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game with a win Friday at Iowa.
Pelini said 2009 seems so long ago that he barely remembers it, but there are likely some similarities between the two teams.
“I think it starts with having high character guys and a commitment to getting better each day and having the mental discipline, the fortitude, the things that bring it to the practice field each day,” Pelini said. “I know you guys might get sick of me talking about it...it takes a certain mental toughness and a certain focus to bring it to the practice field every day.”
Pass defense strong
The Nebraska pass defense has been better and better this season.
The Huskers are now second in the nation in both pass efficiency defense and pass defense (157.6 yards per game). Opposing quarterbacks have had a difficult time completing passes against the Blackshirts.
During the five-game winning streak, those quarterbacks have struggled. Minnesota’s Philip Nelson (8-23), Penn State‘s Matt McGloin (18-37), Michigan State‘s Andrew Maxwell (9-27), Michigan’s Denard Robinson (6-11) and Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian (15-35) couldn’t solve the Husker defense.
Neither could Michigan’s Russell Bellomy who replaced Robinson after he was injured. Bellomy finished the game 3-for-16 for 38 yards with three interceptions.
“I think I said way back in the spring that I really liked how the secondary was developing and growing,” Pelini said. “I thought we had the pieces and the potential. You know, we all know what potential is. You have to maximize it and you actually got to put it on the field. We still got to keep growing, you know. We aren’t a finished product yet, but I think we have made a lot of strides.”
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.