Marlon Lucky, the most ballyhooed recruit of the Bill Callahan era, finally put on the versatile, dazzling, NFL-bound show Saturday that every Nebraska football fan has awaited. It came via the Cornhuskers' 52-10 rout of Nevada.
Putting aside the weight of expectations, a winter of discontent and a fall camp full of concussions and doubt, the junior running back from Los Angeles sprinted, juked, bulled and caught his way to the best opening-day performance of any Husker offensive player in history.
Acting as work horse and show pony, he set opening-day records for rushing yards (233), all-purpose yards (266) and touchdowns (four).
He had the fifth-best rushing game in NU history. And Lucky did it all in three quarters.
He played in front of eight family members, most of whom greeted him after the game decked out in his old No. 20 jersey.
"I just play my game and show everybody what I've got," Lucky said. "I came in fresh. Coach told me to take the whole week and get ready for the game. I was fresh."
Senior guard/tackle Matt Slauson was a little more descriptive of Lucky's play.
"He was just a force out there," Slauson said. "It was all heart with him today. He refused to let one guy bring him down. On a couple plays, I saw four or five guys trying to bring him down. Just to see him giving that second and third effort - it makes us feel bad if we're not."
Lucky's play was part of a larger, and total, domination by the No. 20 Huskers in front of 84,078 at Memorial Stadium. NU doubled Nevada's time of possession and amassed 625 offensive yards, looked crisp on special teams and, with a blitzing, aggressive defense, stuck a big finger in the barrel of Nevada's "Pistol" offense.
The second half, in which NU outscored Nevada 31-0 and looked like it could have scored twice that, recalled the powerful, physical Husker teams of the 1990s that would routinely rack up 300 rushing yards, and intimidate opponents with its interior girth flanked by world-class speed.
Using just a small sampling of stretch, counter and zone running plays, the offensive line spread the Wolf Pack defenders all over the field, and created a generous bubble from which quarterbacks Sam Keller and Joe Ganz could scan the field and select a receiver at will.
"We even ran a fullback belly play," Callahan joked.
And a couple option plays, too.
"It was really pleasing to sit back and just watch those guys work," Keller said. "There were some pops, some good runs. I'm so proud of offensive line and running backs. They really set the tone today."
Aside from senior quarterback Keller's occasionally wobbly play in his first start - part of which, Callahan said, could be attributed to an off-season rule change that created a "extremely fast" play clock - there just wasn't much to pick nits over.
"The preparation we put into this was extensive," Callahan said. "And it certainly paid off today."
Midway through the second quarter, with Nebraska struggling with the play clock and misfiring just slightly on pass routes, it looked like Nevada might try to play the role Appalachian State, which pulled one of the great upsets in college football history on Saturday with a 34-32 win over No. 5 Michigan Saturday.
"I certainly didn't want that here," Callahan said.
Nevada did take a 10-7 lead in the second quarter after safety Jonathan Anaya's 80-yard interception return for a touchdown. Keller forced a third-down pass into coverage where it was tipped, caught by Amaya, and returned without Keller giving much chase.
Keller, who completed 14-of-25 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown, said he wanted that pass back, but that "it was no big deal" in the larger scheme of the game.
"Our plan was just to run the ball in the next drive and get right back on the board and get right back after them."
On the ensuing kickoff, NU cornerback Cortney Grixby gave the Huskers terrific field position at Reno's 39-yard line with a 42-yard kickoff return. NU then drove those 39 yards for a touchdown in nine rushing plays, capped by Lucky's one-yard plunge over the goal line.
Nebraska tacked on another seven points just four minutes later, in similar fashion: Fifty-four yards, eight rushing plays, and a one-yard touchdown run from true freshman Quentin Castille on fourth down. The Huskers took a 21-10 lead into halftime.
And in the locker room, the Husker coaches and players talked about, as offensive tackle Carl Nicks said, "having the best third quarter ever."
That quarter had been a sore spot for NU in 2006. Nebraska scored just 49 points in 14 games.
But Nebraska knew it had Nevada on the ropes, that the undersized Wolf Pack had spent much of the first half playing it safe on defense, not blitzing, getting knocked on its heels. The second half plan: Run the ball and finish drives.
"Everybody knew they were ready to go home," Castille said. "We just said "Let's go there and keep doing what we're doing.'"
Nevada did indeed look lethargic and slow in the third quarter, and the Huskers' massive offensive line took advantage, plowing huge holes for Lucky and Castille.
Lucky had runs of 23 and 17 on NU's first TD drive of the second half, and another 17-yarder on the next scoring drive. His longest gain in the third quarter was 31 yards.
The Huskers led 45-10 heading into the fourth quarter, and used much of the final 15 minutes to play backups and freshmen, and to test option plays with number two quarterback Joe Ganz.
The Wolf Pack hurt its cause with 12 penalties, an anemic running game and a wishful defensive strategy that needed Nebraska to blow a lot of assignments to work.
They baked in the 85-degree heat and generally looked, as Castille suggested, ready to head back to Reno.
Nevada had five three-and-outs in the second half, and only eight yards on those drives. The "Pistol" offense helped quarterback Nick Graziano get away, but the sophomore often floated passes to the lone receiver available once he had rolled away from all the other ones.
"Getting more into the game, the second quarter really killed us," said Graziano, who completed just 8-of-24 passes.
"Getting more quick drives that just put the defense back on the field,' he said. "It really hurt them, hurt their morale. It hurts to watch them have to play like that."
Nebraska's defense kept the heat up all day with a platoon of fresh defensive linemen and defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove's creativity. Cosgrove unveiled a scheme on third down that had linebacker Phillip Dillard at nose tackle and Steve Octavien playing a hybrid defensive end position.
"We wanted to make sure we didn't have the quarterback didn't have a lot of time to sit back there and throw the ball," Cosgrove said. "I think he felt our presence."
Wake Forest, NU's next opponent, is similar to Nevada but more talented on both sides of the ball. The Deacons lost 38-28 to Boston College on Saturday in a wide-open, offensive game. They use a shotgun offense and a smaller, bend-but-don't-break defense.
In preparation for that game, Callahan said he'll chart all of NU's errors on tape and review them. Despite a game that ranked with the best he's coached at NU, Callahan said he wanted to "temper" enthusiasm. He, like the assembled media pool, seemed to understand greater challenges await.
But on this day, Slauson said, it felt good to watch everybody do something he hadn't seen in his time at NU.
"We're just havin fun," he said. "It was the first game where we all just had a lot of fun. We were rolling. We got in a groove. It took a series, but once we got in that groove, we just had a lot of fun."
NU opened scoring with a 12-play, 94-yard touchdown march, capped by Keller's 16-yard pass to a wide-open Lucky. Nevada helped the Huskers with two pass interference penalties; on both, Keller's passes were less than ideal. But his throw to Lucky was spot on. Lucky cradled it, spun into the end zone, and Nebraska took a 7-0 lead on Alex Henery's extra point.
Nevada countered with a Brett Jaekle field goal that also kept Nevada's 27-year scoring streak intact.
Amaya's interception came on Nebraska's ensuing drive. It was the low point of the game for Keller, who was afforded all the time he needed to find receivers, but couldn't always stick the ball where it needed to be. His passes often fluttered a bit like the butterflies he admitted to having before the game.
Keller and Callahan both said the play clock, which now starts right after the whistle blows the previous play dead, rushed the quarterback at times.
"The play clock was exceedingly fast," Callahan said.