LINCOLN — Nebraska linebacker Julius Jackson’s dream game Saturday against Southern Mississippi rescued the Huskers from an offensive nightmare.
Jackson scored two touchdowns — one on a 16-yard return of a fumble and another on a 28-yard interception return — as the Huskers turned to its defense for big play after big play in a 20-13 victory over the Golden Eagles before a record 77,826 at Memorial Stadium.
Never have so many seen the Nebraska offense look so sickly on its home turf. The Huskers finished with just 185 total yards and committed five turnovers — narrowly averting what could have been a disastrous sixth when quarterback Eric Crouch recovered his fumbled center snap on NU’s 6-yard line with 1:11 to play.
The output was Nebraska’s lowest since a 1993 win over Oklahoma when the Huskers gained just 179 yards.
“There’s no doubt the reason we won this game is because of the way our defense played,” Crouch said. “I’ve already thanked a couple of our defensive guys and told them that we’re going to try to make it a little easier on them next week.”
Jackson and his defensive mates might not mind the assistance, but Saturday’s performance showed they’re more than capable of strapping the team on their shoulders and carrying it. In addition to Jackson’s big plays, the Nebraska defense came up with four other turnovers, including a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by sophomore cornerback Keyuo Craver.
The defense never wilted in spite of being on the field for 79 plays in 80-degree heat, providing the lift that improved the fourth- and sixth-ranked Huskers to 3-0 heading into next week’s Big 12 Conference opener against Missouri.
“As a defense, we felt like we had to win the game today,” said Jackson, who became the first Husker defender to score two touchdowns in a game since at least 1974. “We just had to keep reaching down deep inside and making plays.”
Said Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride: “I can’t tell you how proud I am of those guys. I can’t say enough about them.”
“I just felt like they could have lined up in anything and we would have stopped them.”
Overall, Southern Mississippi gained 293 yards, 268 on the passing of quarterback Jeff Kelly. But the Huskers sacked Kelly five times, intercepted him four times and forced him to fumble once. Jackson scooped up that loose ball and returned it for Nebraska’s opening touchdown.
Jackson scored the eventual game-winning touchdown in the third quarter, picking off a Kelly pass that had been batted into the air by Craver and scooting 28 yards for the score. That touchdown erased the 13-12 lead that the 2-1 Golden Eagles had taken after Nebraska I-back Dan Alexander had fumbled on the first play of the third quarter.
“It seemed like I had to wait forever for that ball to come down,” Jackson said. “I was just hoping that one of my teammates didn’t get it before I did.”
As it turned out, Jackson came up with the ball and the score. But he had plenty of help from his teammates, most notably:
Craver, who stopped Southern Mississippi drives in the fourth quarter with interceptions at the Nebraska 8-and 1-yard lines. He also broke up four passes, made two tackles and chipped in a 14-yard punt return for good measure.
Rover back Mike Brown, who recorded 12 tackles, including eight solo stops, and one pass breakup.
Rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who broke out of an early-season slump to get nine tackles — he had been credited with just two in Nebraska’s first two games. Three of Vanden Bosch’s tackles produced losses, and he set up Jackson’s first touchdown with a jarring sack of Kelly that forced the fumble.
Rush end Aaron Wills, who had eight tackles, including five unassisted stops.
In addition to his two scores, Jackson had five tackles, including a sack.
“Julius had a great game,” Husker cornerback Ralph Brown said, “and he’ll let us know about it tonight. He’ll be bragging, but he deserves to. He’s a great player, and he showed that today.”
The Huskers’ defensive effort came against a Southern Mississippi team that had scored 88 points in its first two wins. The unranked Golden Eagles came to Lincoln as four-touchdown underdogs, and they left with little consolation in having pressed the Huskers to the limit.
“We came here to win a football game,” Southern Mississippi Coach Jeff Bower said. “I’m proud of our players and their effort, but there’s more to it than effort, and we didn’t get that part done today.
“Nebraska has an impressive football team. Someone said, ‘You knocked them out of the Top 10.’ I say, give us a little credit.”
If Nebraska does experience any ratings slippage, the offense will have to shoulder that blame. The Huskers went three-and-out on 10 of their 14 possessions, with their longest consisting of a pair of eight-play drives. The offense ran only 51 plays and produced just eight first downs, the fewest since Nebraska got just seven in a 47-0 loss to Oklahoma in 1968.
Crouch threw two interceptions and Alexander fumbled twice. Nebraska didn’t get above the 100-yard mark in total offense until almost 40 minutes into the game.
It took the Huskers almost 40 minutes to produce 100 yards of offense. Nebraska finished with just 119 yards rushing, the second straight game in which its running game has faltered (the Huskers got 114 yards against California last week). For the first time since 1988, Nebraska is three games into the season without having one of its backs rush for 100 yards in a game.
“Offensively, it was a very difficult day,” Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. “It was a day where we really couldn’t get anything going in the running game with any kind of consistency. We also did very little in the passing game. We did not do the necessary things offensively to be in the game quite like we were.
“But the defense did a great job. It’s a win for our football team, and we’ll take it.”
Crouch, in his first start with former No. 1 quarterback Bobby Newcombe now at wingback, finished with 26 yards rushing on 16 carries and completed 6 of 10 passes for 66 yards. Alexander, taking over for the departed DeAngelo Evans, had 54 yards on 16 carries.
But Alexander’s third-quarter fumble set up the 19-yard scoring drive that allowed the Golden Eagles to take a one-point lead. Alexander also lost the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter, killing a drive that had started at the NU 3.
“I feel I let my team down today,” Alexander said. “The fumbles stopped our momentum. I had a bad week of practice — I missed a day because of my ankle and I kind of babied it the rest of the week. I was unprepared today, and I’m not going to let it happen again. I know more is expected of me than what I showed today.”
The rest of the offense could second that thought.
“We made too many mental mistakes today,” Crouch said. “I threw two interceptions. We had a couple of fumbles. We need to eliminate that kind of stuff if we want to be a team that is in the race for the national championship.”
Nebraska’s offense did produce one touchdown, driving 46 yards in eight plays early in the second quarter. Fullback Willie Miller scored on an 8-yard run to put Nebraska ahead 12-7.
The teams had traded scores in the first quarter, with Jackson’s touchdown giving Nebraska a 6-0 lead with 7:50 left. Kicker Josh Brown missed the conversion, and Southern Mississippi went ahead 7-6 with 52 seconds left in the period when Kelly tossed an 8-yard scoring pass to Todd Pinkston and Brant Hanna added the point-after. That was the first touchdown NU’s defense has allowed this season.
Miller’s touchdown put Nebraska ahead until the third quarter, when Sherrod Gideon scored on a 5-yard pass from Kelly. The Golden Eagles failed to convert the two-point attempt, leaving them holding a 13-12 lead.
Nebraska went three-and-out, and the Golden Eagles took over at their own 33-yard line following a 47-yard punt by Dan Hadenfeldt.
Five plays later, Jackson struck again, teaming up with Craver to produce the game-winning points.
“This is a dream game, running back two touchdowns like that,” Jackson said. “It really hasn’t hit me yet, but I know tonight it will.”
Trailing for the third time, the Golden Eagles refused to quit.
Three of Southern Mississippi’s final six possessions ended in Nebraska territory. Hanna missed a 43-yard field goal after the Golden Eagles had moved to the Nebraska 26-yard line late in the third quarter.
Kelly, who completed 23 of 45 passes, had Southern Mississippi driving after Alexander’s second fumble had given the Golden Eagles the football at the Nebraska 48-yard line. Craver turned back that threat when he picked off a pass at Nebraska’s 8-yard line.
Nebraska couldn’t pick up a first down — the Huskers were 3 of 12 in third-down conversions — and punted. Southern Mississippi took over at its 41-yard line, and Kelly completed passes of 9 yards to Gideon, 30 yards to Pinkston and 6 yards to Gideon to move the Golden Eagles to the NU 14.
On second down and four, Kelly overthrew Pinkston, and Craver came up with his second interception.
“We’ve come to expect big plays from Keyuo,” Mike Brown said, “and he came up with some huge ones today.”
Nebraska ran out the clock, but not before Crouch almost fumbled away the first-down snap. As the Huskers exited the stadium, the crowd serenaded them with chants of, “Defense, Defense, Defense.”
“We kept telling ourselves that with the offense struggling, we were the ones who had to get it done today,” Vanden Bosch said. “We were out there for a long time, but we just kept digging down deep and making plays.”
|Yards per carry||0.7||2.9|
Nebraska is 5-1 all-time against Southern Miss.
|Southern Miss||Sept. 18|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 2|
|Iowa State||Oct. 9|
|Texas A&M||Nov. 6|
|Kansas State||Nov. 13|
Nebraska has played 9 games on Sept. 18. See them all »
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