Rex Burkhead was running along the sideline. And Jeremiah Sirles wanted to know why.
“I’m going in,” Burkhead said.
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, let’s go then,’” said Sirles
The brief exchange between I-back and offensive tackle took place as the Nebraska football team prepared for the second half of the Iowa game on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Sirles patted his teammate on the back.
“See you in the end zone.”
With just over 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter, they did. Burkhead ran 3 yards for a touchdown, the Huskers’ only touchdown, on the frigid afternoon.
But one touchdown and two Brett Maher field goals were sufficient for a 13-7 victory, which ensured a trip to the Big Ten championship game at Indianapolis.
As it turned out, Nebraska would have been headed to Indianapolis for a Saturday night rematch with Wisconsin even with a loss, as Michigan lost at Ohio State the next day.
But back to Burkhead, who was “nothing but smiles when he was in there,” Sirles said.
Burkhead hadn’t been “in there” since the Northwestern game, when he reinjured a knee. He missed the next four games, as well as the first half against Iowa.
“We were shooting for the Big Ten championship game. That was for sure the timetable (for a return), and my frame of mind as well as the trainers’ and coaches’. We thought possibly this past game against Iowa as well,” Burkhead said on the Monday afterward. “But we didn’t want to rush it.
“We wanted to make sure I was still good to go.”
Burkhead was good to go, all right. He led the Huskers in rushing with 69 yards and the touchdown. But, perhaps, more importantly, he gave them an emotional left.
Sirles called it a “rejuvenation” of the offense.
That’s no disrespect to sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who has stepped in for Burkhead. Abdullah has rushed for 1,071 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, including two on pass receptions and another on an 81-yard punt return against Idaho State.
Abdullah earned second-team All-Big Ten recognition from the coaches.
But he and Burkhead together are better than just one or the other. “I think having those two in there is going to be a huge, huge part of our game plan,” Sirles said.
Burkhead likely will start against Wisconsin, said Pelini, but “Ameer is going to play a lot. You’ll see Braylon (Heard). You’ll see Imani (Cross). You’ll see them all.”
Nebraska likely will need all healthy hands on deck if it is to defeat the Badgers for a second time. Even though their record is 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, their other three conference losses were in overtime – and the non-conference loss was by three points at Oregon State.
“We just as easily could be in that boat,” Sirles said. “You’ve got to have respect for the game of football. Coach Bo says that all the time because it could just be a bad bounce that goes the wrong way and stuff. I don’t buy into the wins and losses. I buy into what they put on tape.”
What the Badgers put on tape is “they’re a dang good defense, and they’re a dang good football team,” said Sirles. “They’re going to challenge us in every aspect.”
Wisconsin managed only 56 rushing yards (on 41 attempts) in a 30-27 loss the first time the teams played at Memorial Stadium, but the Badgers have run the ball better since, behind a massive offensive line. Wisconsin averages 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds from tackle to tackle.
Adding to Nebraska’s concern is the season-ending knee injury senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler suffered in the Iowa game. The Huskers were already thin at his position.
They also lost senior center Justin Jackson to an ankle injury.
“I talked to Justin right after the game, and I felt terrible for him,” Burkhead said. “I was looking forward to playing with him and getting back on the field with him.”
Jackson was injured in the first quarter, long before Burkhead’s return.
“He’s such a high-energy guy,” said Burkhead.
The same can be said of Burkhead.
“We’re pushing the pile (blocking), and we’re getting up, ‘Good job, guys, good job,’ ” Sirles said. “He’s just full of energy. So it’s great to have him back out there.”