On a day of recognition, Nebraska gave pregame nods to Husker legend Tom Osborne and the senior class.
Then the defense took center stage.
Early recognition helped the Huskers start fast in Saturday’s 38-14 win against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium. Once the Nebraska defense settled in, it was pretty much impenetrable.
Minnesota had a couple of good gains on its first two drives, but the Huskers rose and stopped the Gophers on third down both times. Will Compton and Baker Steinkuhler stopped Donnell Kirkwood on third-and-1 on the first series and Ciante Evans dropped Rodrick Williams short of a first down on the second.
“The first couple of drives, we were just trying to go back to our defensive fundamentals,” said Evans, who had six tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. “Minnesota came out with stuff we hadn’t seen. We knew they’d have a few wrinkles, but eventually they would need to go back to their offensive game plan, which they did. Once they did, we were able to keep them out of the end zone.”
The Gophers scored twice against the Husker reserves.
But through three quarters, the Gophers managed just 102 total yards and only crossed midfield twice.
Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson finished just 8-of-23 for 59 yards. In addition, Nebraska held the Gophers to 1-for-13 on third down, including 0-for-9 through three quarters.
“It was nice to get off to a fast start,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I thought our guys came out with focus. The key for us was how we played on third down. I thought we were physical on third-and-short early in the game. That started the momentum in our direction. Those were both big plays in the game in establishing some control early.”
Over the course of the season, the NU defense has gotten better at recognizing what the opponent is trying to do, Papuchis said, and adjustments come quickly.
“The more snaps they get under their belt, the more comfortable they are with seeing what the other team is trying to do,” he said. “Our guys adjusted well. My corrections on the sideline were pretty minimal.”
Papuchis said the Huskers were confident and prepared well all week.
“I told them one way or another, they’d remember Senior Day at home,” Papuchis said. “Whether they remember it positively or negatively would be based on how they play. I thought they understood that. There wasn’t any doubt among them that this group of seniors was going to walk off the field here for the last time as winners. I couldn’t even fathom it any other way, and they went out and played their butts off.”
The Huskers came up with two interceptions, both on tipped balls. The first ended up in Daimion Stafford's hands on a deep pass, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned the second pick 48 yards for a touchdown.
“We wanted to leave it all out there today for the seniors,” Evans said. “This was their day, so we didn’t want to disappoint them.”
That early control led to a 38-0 lead through three quarters, then most of the starters were relegated to the bench. Unfortunately, the reserves couldn’t keep the shutout intact, which would have been the first for the Husker defense since a 33-0 whitewashing of Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl.
Hey, at least it wasn’t a game that required a big comeback, right?
“I actually like the dramatic comebacks, because I get to stay in all four quarters,” Husker defensive end Eric Martin said. “I was sitting at halftime cold. I like to play to stay in, and when they took me out I was upset. I’m not even tired right now. I want to go play again.”
The Huskers will get their chance Friday at Iowa with an opportunity to wrap up an outright Big Ten Legends Division title.
“In Monday’s team meeting — even last Saturday night in the locker room — we talked about how it doesn’t really matter who’s coming to play here,” Papuchis said. “In order for us to get to where we want to go, Minnesota was the next one in our way. The same is true with Iowa. I think this game Friday is bigger than the Big Ten Championship because if you don’t win, you might not go.”