By Adam Bouton
Quarterback Joe Ganz threw for four touchdowns leading the University of Nebraska to a 47-24 victory over Western Michigan University in Lincoln, Neb. on Saturday night.
The Cornhuskers built a 34-10 halftime lead and never looked back, securing their 23rd consecutive home-opener victory for new head coach Bo Pelini in front of 84,485 fans at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska jumped out to an early 17-0 lead in the first quarter, as the Broncos had trouble generating any offense in the early going. The Huskers marched down the field on their second offensive possession and scored, as senior running back Marlon Lucky ran the ball in from 14 yards out for the first touchdown of the evening. On their next possession, Ganz connected with tight end Mike McNeill on a 3-yard touchdown catch.
Down 14-0, Bronco running back Brandon West fumbled the ball on the very first play of the next offensive series. Nebraska made good on the turnover, as Husker kicker Alex Henery booted his first of four field goals on the day to open the lead to 17-0. Incredibly, all of Henery’s field goals were from 44 yards out.
Nebraska’s defense could not contain the Western Michigan offense for long, as senior quarterback Tim Hiller led the Bronco offense down the field on the next series. Two 15-yard penalties by Nebraska cornerback Anthony West assisted the offense and the Brown and Gold made the game 17-7 early in the second quarter. Hiller hooked up with tight end Branden Ledbetter on a 3-yard touchdown catch to put the Broncos on the board.
The hometown Huskers came right back however, scoring on a long 61-yard pass play from Ganz to wide receiver Nate Swift. After a failed WMU drive, Nebraska took advantage of the great field position and put another field goal through the goal posts for a 27-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, freshman Aaron Winchester put Western Michigan in Husker territory, running the kick back 57 yards. Starting the drive at the Nebraska 43 yard line, WMU drove to the 1, but were unable to punch it in on third down. Freshman kicker John Potter made his first career field goal from 19 yards out to cut the Husker lead to 27-10.
With 3:02 remaining in the half, WMU’s defense once again struggle to slow down the Husker offense. Ganz completed his third touchdown pass just before the half, giving the Huskers a big 34-10 lead at the half.
The Huskers opened the scoring again in the second half. Another field goal by Henery nearly halfway through the third quarter extended the lead to 37-10. WMU fought back on the next drive, with Ledbetter and Hiller connecting on a 50-yard catch to move the Brown and Gold to the Nebraska 30 yard line. Junior running back Brandon West capped it off, grabbing two catches out of the backfield followed by a 1-yard run to complete the six play, 80-yard drive.
Following punts by both sides, Ganz connected on a 55-yard pass to tight end Dreu Young, followed by a 19-yard completion to Lucky, giving him his fourth touchdown pass on the evening. The score gave Nebraska a large 44-17 lead late in the third quarter.
The Brown and Gold offense then began another long second-half drive, highlighted by a pass and catch from Hiller to wide receiver Schneider Julien for a 50 yard gain. Hiller then found sophomore wide receiver Juan Nunez on fourth down, connecting in the end zone for a touchdown. Nunez’s second career touchdown made the game 44-24 early in the fourth quarter.
The Bronco defense then stepped up in a big way, as senior safety Louis Delmas intercepted Ganz and returned the ball 33 yards. Delmas led the defense with 11 tackles on the day.
With some momentum on their side, the offense moved the ball closer to the goal line. The drive, which had been successful, ended abruptly as Hiller threw an interception near the endzone for the second Bronco turnover of the day.
The Broncos forced Ganz into another interception late, but couldn’t capitalize and following Henery’s fourth field goal of the evening, the score was final.
Even though the final score dictates that Nebraska had the game in-hand throughout the evening, the Broncos certainly matched the Huskers in the second half and even outplayed them at times.
The offensive line held strong throughout the entire game and gave Hiller and the Bronco passing attack enough time to deliver on several big passing plays. Even though senior receiver Jamarko Simmons was held in check with just two catches, several others stepped up including Julien (5 catches, 85 yards) and Nunez (3 catches, 1 touchdown). West also made seven grabs out of the backfield on Saturday, proving that the WMU passing game should be one to recon with this season.
Hiller opened up his 2008 campaign in a big way, throwing for 342 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception while going 30-for-49 in pass attempts.
Also through the air, Ledbetter was clearly one of the bright spots for the Broncos on the day. He hauled in nine catches for 123 yards and one touchdown. It was the third game in his career in which he earned at least 100 yards. Ledbetter was one yard shy of matching his career high.
In total, WMU was able to nearly match Nebraska in several offensive areas. The Broncos 342 yards through the air was only three shy of the Cornhuskers 345-yard mark. The Brown and Gold kept the turnovers to a minimum, with only one fumble loss and one interception. This matched the number of turnovers Nebraska had, with Ganz throwing two picks.
The bright spot that may go overlooked for the Broncos was the special teams, where Western Michigan saw both their kicker and punter compete in collegiate action for the first time. Potter made good on all four of his kicks and freshman punter Ben Armer got all of his punts downfield against a tenacious Big 12 Conference opponent. Winchester’s 57-yard kick return in the second quarter set up the Broncos perfectly for Potter’s field goal.
The defense also picked up the intensity in the second half, forcing Ganz into two interceptions and containing the Husker offense to just 13 points. WMU outscored Nebraska in the second half 14-13.
The biggest concern for the Broncos in their opening contest was the running game. As a team, WMU rushed for only eight total yards of offense. Of the 19 total first downs the Broncos earned, none of them came out of the backfield.
Western Michigan will take their game-earned experience against Nebraska and bring it home, as they will face off against MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois University on Saturday. If the Broncos kick off their home schedule with a victory, they will have their work cut out for them.
The Huskies finished 2007 with only two wins and are in rebuilding mode. But first-year head coach Jerry Kill has NIU hungry and eager to improve. They nearly knocked off Big Ten Conference opponent the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers scored a touchdown with just 22 seconds remaining to secure the 31-27 victory over the Huskies.
Kickoff for Saturday’s contest is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Waldo Stadium. Before the game, WMU will celebrate CommUniverCity night.