Joe Ganz threw four touchdown passes to help Bo Pelini win his first game as Nebraska head coach, 47-24 over Western Michigan Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska won its season opener for the 23rd straight year, the longest streak in the nation, but this victory marked a new beginning for a program in rebuilding mode after unraveling under Bill Callahan.
"You know, it's a win," said Pelini. "I appreciate the effort of the coaches and what they've done up to this point, but we're just getting started. We have a long ways to go."
The Huskers led 34-10 at the half before Western Michigan dented them for two of three 80-yard scoring drives, unnerving a crowd that feared a reprise of one of the nation's worst defenses last year.
"I'm not taking anything away from Western Michigan, but most of what they got we gave them because there were mistakes," said Pelini. "That's good and bad. Good because if we executed the way we're supposed to, we're pretty hard to move the football on. It's bad that we made some mistakes."
Ganz provided more than enough offense to beat the visitors from the Mid-American Conference. The fifth-year senior completed 20-of-36 passes for 345 yards. He threw two touchdown passes to Nate Swift, who had 121 yards in receptions, and one each to Mike McNeill and Marlon Lucky.
Ganz became the first Nebraska quarterback to have four 300-yard passing games. Alex Henery kicked four career-long 44-yard field goals.
Ganz, who threw seven interceptions as the starter in the last three games in 2007, was turnover-free until getting picked off twice in two series in the fourth quarter as the Broncos were trying to come back.
"We got better as the game went along," WMU coach Bill Cubit said. "The kids stuck together. There was nothing on the sidelines that was negative. We just kept plugging along. We kept playing. Hey, we lost, but the kids have a lot to build on."
Tim Hiller was 30-of-49 for 342 yards and two scores for Western Michigan. Tight end Branden Ledbetter caught nine balls for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Western Michigan, which was looking for a win over a BCS opponent for the third straight year, couldn't recapture the magic of last season's 28-19 road win over Iowa.
Nebraska's defense, fueled by the crowd of 84,485 on a sultry 87-degree night, held the Broncos to 8 yards on nine plays over three series.
"We didn't start fast," Hiller said. "We needed to get started at the get-go and get a little storm of emotion. We failed to do that. Once we got going there were a lot of positive things."
The Huskers scored on three straight possessions to go up 17-0 early in the second quarter, with Lucky running in from 14 yards, McNeill catching a 3-yard TD pass and Henery kicking the first of his 44-yarders.
Helped by 30 yards in penalties against Nebraska cornerback Anthony West, pass interference and a personal foul, the Broncos moved 80 yards in 10 plays to pull to within 17-7. Hiller finished the series with a 3-yard pass to Ledbetter.
The Huskers came right back, scoring less than a minute later when Ganz found Swift for a 61-yard touchdown pass.
WMU, held to 102 yards in the first half, dinged the Huskers for 194 yards in the third quarter and finished with 350. The Broncos rushed for just 8 yards.
"Western Michigan didn't give up the second half, but it did take a little momentum away from them when we scored right after they did in the first half," said Ganz. "That's what a good teams do. They answer."
Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. led all rushers with 52 yards.
After three seasons at running back, Nebraska's Cody Glenn had the time of his life playing linebacker. "I was like a little kid in the back yard back in Rusk having fun," said Glenn, referring to his hometown in Texas.
Glenn led the Cornhuskers with 12 tackles, nine of them unassisted. Three stops were for losses. He also broke up three passes. He also was the guy who stripped the ball from Brandon West, forcing a fumble that was Nebraska's first takeaway in 267 defensive snaps over four games.
"I didn't envision how many tackles I'd have. I just envisioned playing good football and having fun. That hadn't happened much."
Frustrated by a lack of carries last season under former coach Bill Callahan, Glenn switched to linebacker in the spring. His performance didn't surprise linebackers coach Mike Ekeler.
"I told you guys from day one the guy is an exceptional football player," Ekeler said. "I see it every day. We've seen it all along. We know what he's capable of doing."
Glenn made some mistakes as did all the linebackers, but Ekeler said he knows that Glenn will continue to improve as he learns his new position. "He took it upon himself to come in and watch film and do the extra work. He doesn't want to be good. He wants to be great."