LINCOLN — Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor was headed off the field. Position coach Travis Fisher met him instead.
“Stay!” Fisher said. Play safety.
For the first time in college. In the fourth quarter. Of a one-score game with no room for error.
But glory awaited the sophomore in the Huskers’ 35-21 win over South Alabama. Taylor noticed the opposing tight end on his side of the field was “in,” as if to block a defensive lineman. That left Taylor with a free path to quarterback Cephus Johnson, who had his back turned, inside his own 5.
“It’s like slow motion, knowing that I have a free lane to hurt you,” Taylor said. “You’re not going to look at me, you’re not going to turn around or nothing? All right, here we go.”
Taylor hit Johnson so hard Taylor even hurt himself a bit. The ball popped up, bounced once and rolled into South Alabama’s end zone. Defensive end Alex Davis pounced on it for a touchdown. By the time he rolled over, he had two teammates ready to greet him in a hug.
“I’d seen the quarterback’s neck snap and I was like, ‘That ball is coming out,’ and sure enough, it did,” Davis said.
Davis smiled. Taylor smiled. Senior corner Eric Lee — who had his first two career interceptions, including a pick-six — smiled. Coach Scott Frost figured every defensive player in his locker room had a strut and a grin to him. The defense produced five takeaways, four sacks and, best of all, two touchdowns despite being on the field for 79 plays.
Solemn faces, pursed lips. Not happy.
No reason to be after producing 276 yards, 14 points and two turnovers. If not for the two defensive scores and JD Spielman’s 76-yard punt return for another six points — NU’s first trio of non-offensive touchdowns since 2005 — a second Sun Belt team may have pulled a stunner in Memorial Stadium.
Instead of the shock that accompanied the 24-19 loss to Troy last year, Nebraska had the luxury of being angry that its preferred identity — a fast-paced, high-octane offense — was only a memory from training camp. The 89,502 fans didn’t get to see it.
“That’s as anemic of an offensive effort that I’ve been part of for a long time,” Frost said.
Said quarterback Adrian Martinez: “It’s probably the worst we’ve played in a long time and it’s not acceptable.”
Martinez completed 13 of 22 passes for 178 yards. He threw an interception and took two bad sacks. The Heisman Trophy candidate looked hesitant in the pocket, uncertain of open receivers, reluctant to scramble. South Alabama dropped two interceptions before finally corralling one in the second half, when NU ran just 17 plays.
Martinez cited “four or five throws” that concerned him. Frost said Martinez seemed less “clean and decisive” than in previous games. He also didn’t see Martinez “go” as a runner often enough.
Nebraska struggled on first down, Frost said, which made the game harder to call and increasingly put Martinez in tougher spots. The sophomore also had to deal with high snaps from starting center Cameron Jurgens, who sat in the second half because of a play limit. Coaches say the limit relieves stress on his undisclosed ailment.
Jurgens’ worst snap soared over Martinez’s head for a 20-yard loss. That helped keep NU under 100 rushing yards for the first time since last season’s disaster at Michigan.
Even as Nebraska scored a touchdown on its opening drive, 73 of the 81 yards came via the pass. New starter Dedrick Mills ground out 44 yards for the game. Sophomore Maurice Washington, who sat out the first half with a suspension related to pending criminal charges in California, got 39 yards (on six carries) in the final 30 minutes. South Alabama aimed to stop the run with an extra safety dedicated to it, and NU’s game plan was more limited, Frost said, than many of its plans late last season.
NU’s defense, though, looked plenty exotic. It brought blitzes from all over the field, mixing coverages and personnel often. Sixteen players had at least three tackles. Eight had at least one tackle for loss.
“That’s the beauty of our defense, that three-man front, you don’t know where we’re coming from,” senior nose tackle Darrion Daniels said. “Offensive linemen get confused. Quarterback (too). We don’t make it easy on anybody.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander enjoys a bevy of seniors who can handle more schemes, including Lee, a fifth-year Husker who entered the game in relief of injured starter Deontai Williams. Once the highest-rated recruit of Nebraska’s 2015 class, he never quite found his spot until this spring, when he moved from corner to safety and embraced the increased load of details to learn.
On back-to-back plays early in the third quarter, with Nebraska leading 14-7, Lee’s knowledge paid off.
First, he dislodged a well-thrown ball from the arms of receiver Kawann Baker, who would have had at least a 25-yard gain. Next, Lee stepped in front of a Johnson pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
“I’ve been waiting for that my whole life,” Lee said.
Said Taylor: “To see Eric Lee ball today made us all happy.”
Nebraska’s defense forced a three-and-out on the next South Alabama series, and Spielman wove through traffic for a score. Frost praised safety Marquel Dismuke for declining to pursue a blindside block that would have drawn a penalty.
The Huskers’ 28-7 lead wouldn’t last long. Spielman muffed the following punt; the Jaguars turned that into a 13-yard touchdown drive. Martinez threw his interception and the Jaguars turned that into a touchdown, too.
Nebraska’s final five offensive series produced 17 yards. But Taylor and Davis teamed up for their defensive touchdown — which provided the final margin — while Lee and Taylor each got a fourth-quarter interception to preserve the lead.
The win left the locker room in a “50-50” mood, Frost said. An excited defense. A disappointed offense. Frost, the team’s play-caller, counted himself in the latter group.
But he’s the head coach, too, and in a season when Frost wants to play up the Blackshirt tradition — even using a Blackshirt-themed look for NU’s alternate uniform — he said he was “thrilled to see the Blackshirts that we expect.”
And rest assured, Taylor and his mates expect this kind of performance. Again and again.
“That’s a thing for us this year,” Taylor said. “(The offense) may put up 21 and we’ll try to put up 21 on defense. That’s a great game for us.”
|Yards per carry||1.9||2.2|
Nebraska is 2-0 all-time against South Alabama.
|South Alabama||Aug. 31|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 14|
|Ohio State||Sept. 28|
Nebraska has played 5 games on Aug. 31. See them all »
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