Rex Burkhead, Nebraska's 2011 leading rusher and one of its best players, is injured.
At first, it appeared to be a minor tweak. Burkhead lifted himself off the turf, wiggled his foot a bit, and slowly walked off the field during Nebraska's 49-20 win against Southern Mississippi in what could hardly be described as a limp.
It was a sprained MCL.
At its most severe, a sprained MCL can sideline an athlete for eight weeks, at its lightest, only a few days. Coach Bo Pelini said the sprain is the lowest grade, meaning, that Burkhead could be available for Saturday's game at UCLA.
"He'll be fine," Pelini said. "He's day-to-day, week-to-week. I don't think it's anything long term. He'll be fine."
Burkhead's injury came on his third carry of the game, a 9-yard run, when the Nebraska I-back was tackled by Southern Mississippi defensive end Jamie Collins.
At that point, Burkhead was white hot, having just set a career-long with a 57-yard touchdown on his previous carry. He had accumulated 68 yards in his three attempts, but his day was done.
Burkhead stood up and headed for the sideline. His hand gestured, calling for Ameer Abdullah.
In Burkhead's absence, the sophomore I-back rushed 15 times for 83 yards, adding 39 yards receiving and a touchdown. Fellow sophomore back Braylon Heard contributed three rushes for 34 yards, while fullback Mike Marrow added another 15 yards in his first start for Nebraska. True freshman I-back Imani Cross also saw action, accumulating 62 yards on 11 carries.
"Our backs really stepped up behind Rex and they played well," Pelini said. "Ameer and Braylon and Imani, right down the line.
"We have a lot of confidence in our backs. We have very capable guys behind Rex."
But the biggest contribution came from the passing game.
With Nebraska's top rusher down, quarterback Taylor Martinez and a deep Nebraska receiving corps dominated the offensive side of the ball. Martinez set a career-high with 354 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air.
And those numbers came mostly without starting tight end Ben Cotton and slot receiver Tim Marlowe, who also went down with injuries.
"It's about plugging the next guy in," sophomore wide receiver Tyler Wullenwaber said. "We've all had a ton of reps, Jamal's more than capable of filling Timmy's role too."
Marlowe, a senior who splits reps with Jamal Turner in the slot, broke his clavicle, an injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the game. Ben Cotton left the game with a rib injury and spent the rest of the game watching from the sideline in street clothes, and his future is unknown.
Despite injuries to starters, the passing game trucked on, as Martinez found a way to hook up with 10 different receivers on the afternoon.
"I don't think no one could stop us if we keep going like that," Martinez said. "We have so many dynamic athletes out there."
As the Huskers continue to monitor the injury statuses of Burkhead and Marlowe they may have to make do with other players in the coming weeks. Burkhead's injury might not sideline him for any games, but Marlowe's clavicle will keep him out for a few weeks, according to Pelini.
"When you're a two-deep guy and you're in that No. 2 spot, you prepare just like the rest of the guys because you're going to get thrown in there," junior tight end Jake Long said. "Whenever somebody gets dinged up you have to be ready and you've got to step up and make a play."
Next week's game at UCLA is the only game the Huskers have against a BCS opponent until Sept. 29 when Wisconsin comes to Lincoln. The Bruins enter the season unranked, but are coming off a 49-24 win against Rice.
Statuses are still unknown for Burkhead and Cotton, but Pelini ruled Marlowe out for next week's contest.