LINCOLN — Nebraska didn't need it Saturday night, not with a season-high 55 points on the scoreboard.
There was no call for its final nonconference football game to be put in the hands of its defense. The Huskers produced points on five straight possessions to start out against Louisiana-Lafayette and followed with a 74-yard interception return by Larry Asante.
But what if? What if the Husker offense didn't have it Saturday night or some future week?
Is NU better equipped than ever to win a game with its defense as it goes deeper into Bo Pelini’s time as head coach?
Nebraska senior center Jacob Hickman said yes after watching the Huskers hold ULL to 222 total yards and force three turnovers in the 55-0 win, one week after the defense nearly pulled off a victory at Virginia Tech.
“It’s huge,’’ Hickman said. “You feel like a burden’s lifted off you. I've been around where we felt if we didn't score on every drive, we might not win the game. That’s really not kind of the way it’s supposed to work.
“Now with this defense, with what the staff’s got them doing, we can sputter on a drive and be like, ‘All right, we’ll be right back out here after a three-and-out.’ It’s a great feeling to have as an offensive guy.’’
It must be noted that the Louisiana-Lafayette offense that operated in front of a Memorial Stadium record crowd of 86,304 is not to be confused with future Big 12 opponents such as Missouri, Texas Tech or Oklahoma. The Huskers’ victim in their 300th consecutive home sellout was an overmatched Sun Belt Conference team showing the scars of playing a third consecutive BCS opponent.
And Pelini has seen no perfection in the defensive performances of the past two games.
“We've made progress, but we’re nowhere near where I believed we’d be,’’ he said. “We’re getting there. Like I said, we’re in the right galaxy now, and last year we were three solar systems away. We got a lot more to do.’’
But Nebraska perhaps took another step toward recovering from the defensive debacles of 2007 and the every-once-in-awhile troubles of 2008, posting its first shutout since a 56-0 win over Troy in 2006.
The Huskers regularly kept ULL pinned on its side of the field. They knocked the football free from the Ragin’ Cajuns four times overall (with safety Matt O’Hanlon and linebacker Sean Fisher recovering fumbles). They finished some tackles with an attitude again.
After Louisiana-Lafayette went three games without giving up a sack, NU defensive end Cameron Meredith and linebacker Phillip Dillard each logged one, and the Huskers were credited with six quarterback hurries.
The only concerns came from injuries to Asante (left ankle) and fellow defensive backs Rickey Thenarse (right knee) and Prince Amukamara (left ankle), although only Thenarse is expected to miss any significant amount of time with the Huskers off until going to Missouri on Oct. 8.
“They came out Monday and Tuesday and had the best practices we had been through since we've been here,’’ said Marvin Sanders, the NU secondary coach. “So you knew there was something going on. And maybe we’re still not where we want to be, but guys are starting to understand expectations.’’
They remain large, no doubt. Especially with Missouri and Texas Tech up next, two teams that threw up a combined 89 points and 883 yards on the Huskers last season.
Asked what needs to improve between now and then, NU defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said: “Everything. We’re going to be a lot better when we face Missouri than we were tonight, because we’re going to keep practicing hard and keep coaching them hard.’’
The three turnovers against ULL came after Nebraska forced zero at Virginia Tech, which Bo Pelini called unacceptable. The Huskers turned two of them into 14 points, including the interception return by Asante midway through the second quarter that made it 34-0.
Between the turnovers, defensive stops and some punt returns, the NU offense was regularly left with short fields. It didn't take much from Zac Lee, Roy Helu and company on the offensive side to pull away.
Junior defensive end Pierre Allen said that was nice. Lean on the defense if you like.
“We got their back, they got our back,’’ Allen said. “When we’re not having a good day, they always come through with the time of possession and the score. Definitely when they’re not doing good, or even if they are doing great, it’s great to get the other team off the field and get them the ball back.’’
Carl Pelini pondered a question about this defense’s capability of carrying the Huskers to a win. He said he always operates under the philosophy that a good game defensively is holding the opponent to one point less than the offense scores.
Pelini paused for a second and considered it more.
“Yeah, I’d like to take that challenge,’’ he said. “I’d like to think we can win games defensively. But I also know that we can win games offensively, too.’’
|Yards per carry||2.8||3.9|
Nebraska is 1-0 all-time against Louisiana-Lafayette.
|Florida Atlantic||Sept. 5|
|Arkansas State||Sept. 12|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 19|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 17|
|Iowa State||Oct. 24|
|Kansas State||Nov. 21|
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