Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead stood shivering on the sideline with his teammates Saturday afternoon, desperately hoping for an opportunity to show his injured left knee was fine. The temperature in Iowa City hovered in the mid-30s, and swirling winds made it nearly impossible to accurately throw the football.
It was the kind of day that called for a powerfully built truck of a man to repeatedly plunge through the line of scrimmage on the ground. It was a Rex Burkhead kind of day.
So when Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini found his team trailing Iowa 7-3 at halftime and needing a victory to ensure a Big Ten Championship Game spot, he sought out Burkhead. No matter that he hadn’t played the past 4 1/2 games after aggravating an MCL sprain. He had been medically cleared, and this was his time.
“It was a surprise,” Burkhead said this week. “Coach Bo came up to me after halftime asking me if I was ready to play. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ It was good to be out there getting in the flow of the game, getting out there and having fun.”
Burkhead carried the ball 16 times for 69 yards. He also scored a 3-yard touchdown with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter to propel Nebraska to a 13-7 victory. For a man who missed more than a half-season of games, it sure felt good, a performance that signified Burkhead was back in full form just in time for the biggest games of the year.
“He got us out of some tough situations by putting his head down and making some extra yards,” Pelini said. “I thought it was a good mental boost, a good boost period. I thought he played well.”
Among casual observers, Burkhead likely will be the forgotten man in the backfield when Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 in Big Ten play) takes on Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4) on Saturday in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. Badgers running back Montee Ball, a Doak Walker Award finalist, has rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has rushed for 1,071 yards and eight touchdowns.
And then there is Burkhead, a senior who has totaled 474 yards rushing and four touchdowns in six games. His season highlights were supposed to include much more than a 3-yard touchdown run against Iowa, but a knee injury in the season opener against Southern Mississippi has nagged him all year.
He missed games against UCLA and Arkansas State and returned for three games before aggravating the knee against Ohio State. That sidelined him against Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota and in the first half of the Iowa game.
Burkhead said he never gave a thought to taking a medical redshirt season after he sustained the injury in the opener. He has carried the ball just 63 times this season, although he’s averaging a team-best 7.5 yards per rush.
“I knew it was only going to be a couple weeks before I came back,” he said. “Being my senior year, I put in a lot of hard work this offseason. I wanted the opportunity to come back and have a chance to help out the team. This entire offseason, we had a focus of getting into the Big Ten title game. I definitely wanted to come back and contribute to the team however I could.”
Despite Burkhead’s reduced role for much of the season, he is expected to be at full strength against Wisconsin. And his career accomplishments should be enough to garner plenty of attention in the Badgers’ meeting rooms this week.
Burkhead, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound native of Plano, Texas, ranks sixth in career rushing yards at Nebraska with 3,128. He is tied for ninth with teammate and quarterback Taylor Martinez for career rushing touchdowns at 29. Last season, Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards and carried 284 times, just two shy of the single-season record set by Lawrence Phillips in 1994. He has 600 carries in his career.
In other words, Burkhead is a workhorse unafraid to dole out as much punishment as possible. Ball can relate.
“I have a lot of respect for Rex,” said Ball, who has carried 311 times so far this season. “That man is a very physical running back. He doesn’t shy away from contact. He loves to deliver the blow to defenders. A lot of things I take from him is don’t shy away from contact and just keep your feet churning. That’s really what he does.”
In one of the few games in which Burkhead played this season, he rushed for 86 yards and caught a touchdown pass during Nebraska’s 30-27 comeback victory against Wisconsin in Lincoln on Sept. 29.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema has seen enough to know Burkhead presents an element of physicality that the Cornhuskers’ other running backs can’t match.
“He’s very powerful,” Bielema said. “He really brings a package to the game that’s really tough to simulate. He goes at it 100 miles an hour when he’s in there.”
Weather conditions won’t be a factor inside the dome of Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Without the cold and wind, maybe it won’t technically be a Rex Burkhead kind of day, but if he gets enough carries, he’s hoping to make it one anyway.
“I’m feeling great,” Burkhead said. “Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m ready for it. If that’s 20, 10 carries, whatever it is, I’m up for it. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to be back on the field.”