First play of the game, Niles Paul noticed the cornerback was playing up, so he took off up the sideline. Zac Lee saw Paul’s read, floated the ball just over the defender’s shoulder, right into his receiver’s hands for a 35-yard gain.
That conservative Nebraska offense, the one that drew so much criticism last week against Oklahoma? Out the window.
The Big 12 North title within their grasp, the Cornhuskers aren’t holding back any longer.
Roy Helu Jr. ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns, and Nebraska dusted off its big-play offense to beat Kansas 31-17 Saturday for a share of the Big 12 North lead.
“The thing we wanted to say is: We’ve got our mojo back,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.
Chastised for playing close to the vest in last week’s 10-3 win over Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers (7-3, 4-2) hit Kansas with a barrage of big plays to win in Lawrence for the first time since 2001.
Paul took advantage of single coverage, setting the tone with his opening catch and adding three more to finish with 154 yards. He had 244 total yards, including a crucial 44-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead score shortly after Kansas had taken the lead.
Helu recovered a fumble in the end zone in the first quarter, scored on runs of 20 and 14 yards in the fourth. Lee was an efficient 13 for 21 for 196 yards in his first start in three games and Alex Henery kicked three field goals to give Nebraska its first four-game conference road winning streak since 1999-2000.
Next up? Kansas State in Lincoln next week, the Big 12 North title on the line.
“We’re going to have to come out with a higher intensity and be ready to fight,” Cornhuskers linebacker Phillip Dillard said.
Kansas (5-5, 1-5 Big 12) had a historic game the last time Nebraska was in Lawrence, scoring the most points ever against the Cornhuskers in a 76-39 win.
The Jayhawks couldn’t come close to replicating it, hurt by a miserable first quarter, missed assignments on defense and a combination of dropped passes and poorly thrown balls by Todd Reesing.
Once a Heisman Trophy candidate, Reesing threw for 236 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score in his final home game. He finished 19 for 41. Fellow senior Kerry Meier added 10 catches for 127 yards for Kansas, which has lost five straight games for the first time in seven years.
“They’re great kids who have worked hard and done everything we’ve asked of them,” Kansas coach Mark Mangino said of his senior class. “It’s been a little bit of a tough stretch for them, but they’ve done great things here.”
For a team that’s been struggling offensively – 12.2 points the past four games – the Cornhuskers sure got off to a fast start against Kansas.
Tim Marlowe returned the opening kickoff 40 yards, Lee hit Paul on the 35-yard pass, then Helu recovered Lee’s fumble in the end zone. Three minutes, 7-0.
The Huskers put together a couple more big plays – Lee’s 32-yard run, his 37-yard pass to Paul – early in the second quarter, setting up Henery’s 25-yard field goal that made it 10-0.
Henery also hit from 34 – set up by a 45-yard pass from Lee to Paul – and 38 yards in the second half to put Nebraska up 16-10. The Cornhuskers finished with 410 total yards after getting just 180 against the Sooners.
“Last week we tried to play conservative to win the game, but this week we were going to take some shots,” Paul said.
Kansas struggled early, managing 10 total yards and no first downs in the first quarter. The Jayhawks got a jolt of life in the second, when Nebraska safety Larry Asante was called for a late hit on Reesing.
Charged up by the hit – and lack of ejection for Asante – Reesing led Kansas down the field for his 5-yard score on a quarterback draw, the first offensive touchdown allowed by Nebraska in 11 quarters. Reesing moved the Jayhawks quickly again to end the half, setting up Jacob Branstetter’s 33-yard field goal as time expired that tied the game at 10-all.
The first drive of the second half ended inside Nebraska’s 5-yard line after Meier had the ball poked away from behind, but Kansas got moving again midway through the fourth to set up Reesing’s 21-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Dezmon Briscoe.
The lead didn’t last long.
Paul returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards to the Kansas 31, a third-down facemask penalty by Justin Thornton kept the drive alive and Helu scampered up the middle for a 20-yard touchdown. Lee hit Paul on a 2-point conversion to cap the four-play drive, putting the Cornhuskers up 24-17 with just over 6 minutes left.
Nebraska’s defense held Kansas to a three and out, then Helu sealed the victory with a 14-yard run in the closing seconds.
“It’s kind of been the story of the last couple of games. We have been so close every single game and just couldn’t get over the hump,” Kansas tight end Tim Biere said.