LINCOLN — After watching the Red defeat the White 32-25 in Saturday’s spring game, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini spelled it out for the Cornhuskers.
His message was simple.
“If we think that we can just do now what is required and be ready to go and be the type of football team we want to be, it’s not going to happen,” Pelini told reporters in his postgame news conference. “We have to go over and above. We have to do more than what’s required and I think our team understands that.”
Nebraska returns seven starters on offense and five on defense from last year’s 10-4 team that won the Big Ten Legends Division title. After a slow start, Pelini said the Huskers’ 15-practice spring season turned out to be a good one.
“I’ve got to tell you, I was a little concerned about midway through,” Pelini said. “I wasn’t seeing the progress in some areas as much as I’d like.”
However, Pelini said things changed in the Huskers’ final six practices after they returned from spring break.
“I thought we made a big jump,” Pelini said. “I thought it was, obviously, important for us to do that.
“Are we where we want to be? No, but it’s April. We shouldn’t be, but I think there’s a lot firmer foundation that’s going to carry us into fall practice.”
Pelini said that the Huskers have set some very specific team goals, but declined to share them.
“I’m not going to say that right now,” Pelini said. “That’s something that’s just within our walls, but they said three things that we want to be known for and they laid those three things out and it’s not easily accomplished.”
By the book, the actual score should’ve been a 24-21 victory for the Red. But with a crowd of 60,174 and a Big Ten Network TV audience looking on, the Huskers decided to liven things up a little on a sunny, breezy 65-degree afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The final tally included bonus points for a “find a way to win drill” where a single defender attempted to defeat two blockers and tackle a ball-carrier at midfield, which the White won 3-1. There was also a competition featuring offensive linemen trying to field punts, which resulted in a draw as the Red team’s Andrew Rodriguez of Aurora and the White’s Zach Sterup of Hastings St. Cecilia each had catches.
The final score of the day was a 69-yard touchdown run by 7-year-old brain cancer patient Jack Hoffman of Atkinson that was arranged by Nebraska’s coaches and players with 6:41 to play. Hoffman, clad in the No. 22 jersey worn by his hero and former Nebraska I-back Rex Burkhead, took a handoff from Taylor Martinez and, after a little guidance from the Huskers’ starting quarterback, dashed around the right end to the end zone.
“Obviously, Jack’s a young man who has touched the hearts of a lot of people,” Pelini said. “Our football team, the student body — people got behind him — and he’s become a big part of the team.
“I thought it was a really special thing.”
A throng of Nebraska players rushed onto the field from the sidelines to celebrate Hoffman’s TD, lifting him onto their shoulders. The play was counted in the official game summary.
“That was awesome for the team and for Jack,” Martinez said. “He’s going to remember that for the rest of his life and so will I.”
Overall, Pelini said he was relatively pleased with Nebraska’s performance
“There were some good things out there (and) there was some sloppiness at times,” Pelini said. “In a lot of instances, people hadn’t played together so there were some miscommunication, some missed assignments, some things that, obviously, you don’t like as a head coach.
“But you go into a game like this and you kind of understand some of that stuff is going to happen, but overall, good effort.”
Pelini said the spring game was good experience for several of Nebraska’s younger players. He said several of them needed a quarter or longer to get accustomed to the very public practice.
“Their eyes were big — they were too big for a situation like this,” Pelini said. “I think they settled down after a while. I can say that on both sides.
“This is a different stage for some of those guys. Some of these guys have not been out there in this atmosphere and that’s all part of the development.”
As expected, Nebraska’s offense had the upper hand most of the game. The Red, not including Hoffman’s run, finished with 327 total yards, while the White gained 309 total yards.
Martinez, who was banned from running the ball by his coaches, finished 8 of 10 passing for 105 yards, including a 45-yard TD pass to fullback C.J. Zimmerer with 14:50 to play in the second quarter. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. made his case to win the backup QB spot, completing 5 of 7 pass attempts for 102 yards, including a 37-yard scoring strike to Alonzo Moore with 14:53 to play, and also rushed 10 times for 26 yards.
Ron Kellogg III, who figures to be Armstrong’s top competition for the backup job, was 11 of 12 passing for 148 yards and a TD for the White. Grand Island redshirt freshman Ryker Fyfe was 3 of 7 passing for 11 yards for the White, but was sacked three times.
Pelini said Nebraska appears solid at the quarterback position.
“Ron got better throughout the spring,” Pelini said. “I thought Tommy made big strides throughout the spring and I thought Ryker Fyfe did some really good things. He didn’t get very good protection out there today, but he showed that he can really throw the ball.”
Defensively, linebacker Trevor Roach led the Red with 10 total tackles, while teammates Thomas Brown, Donovan Vestal, Derek Foster and Brad Simpson all had sacks. Linebacker Colby Starkebaum recorded eight tackles, including two sacks, for the White.
“They’ve come a long way in a lot of areas,” Pelini said of Nebraska’s defense. “When we have our full contingent, I think the defense has potential to be very, very good. I’ve said that, but it’s going to require a lot of hard work between now and then.
“There’s going to be tremendous competition to see who’s out there on that field come that first game.”
Nebraska appears to have a handle on replacing graduated place kicker/punter Brett Maher as sophomore place-kicker Mauro Bondi kicked a 50-yard first-quarter field goal and later missed wide right on a 58-yard try, but had plenty of leg with the wind. Grand Island redshirt freshman Sam Foltz averaged 44.2 yards on five punts with a long of 55.
“(Bondi) has got to work on his mental approach, the consistency that’s required and he has to show when things are tough,” Pelini said. “Foltz showed me he’s an excellent punter. He’s got a big leg, so if we had to play a game today, Bondi would be kicking off and kicking and Foltz would be punting, which would be a pretty good scenario in that we wouldn’t have to have one guy handling all the duties.”