Walking off the field after Nebraska’s 30-27 victory against Wisconsin on Saturday night, Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis looked up and pointed at the Memorial Stadium scoreboard.
“That’s Wisconsin that had 60 yards rushing,” he said with equal parts wonder and pride.
Wonder, because he knows how talented Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is, and how he gashed Nebraska for 151 yards and four touchdowns last season at Madison, Wis.
Pride, because his defense, faced with some difficult field position in the first half because of offensive blunders and miscues in the defensive backfield, rose up and got stronger when the game was on the line.
“I have as much respect for the Wisconsin running attack as any running attack in college football, and we held them to 60 yards (officially 56),” Papuchis said.
Ball finished with 90 yards and three touchdowns, but the Huskers made him work for those yards. He averaged just 2.8 yards on his 32 carries and had just 15 carries for 30 yards in the second half.
How did the Huskers do it? Seven times in the second half, Nebraska held Ball to zero or negative yardage. Three sacks and 12 tackles for loss reduced the Wisconsin rushing totals by 54 yards. As the game moved into the fourth quarter, the defense started to get penetration and win one-on-one battles on the line of scrimmage.
“Any time you get into a game and they’re in two-back, two-tight end and you’ve got 20 guys within a 5-yard box of each other, someone has to get off a block,” Papuchis said. “I thought our defensive line did a good job of getting off blocks. They got better as the game progressed. They started to get a feel for how they were being blocked and attacked.”
Papuchis credited cornerback Ciante Evans with holding Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis to two catches in the second half after he torched Nebraska for 107 yards, five catches and a touchdown in the first.
“He said, ‘Put me on him,’” Papuchis said. “When the guy wants that kind of challenge, we give it to him, and he did a good job.”
Nebraska allowed Wisconsin 205 yards and 11 first downs in the first half but just 90 yards and six first downs in the second. Its biggest defensive stand came on a fourth-and-1 with Wisconsin at midfield and 1:26 left in the game. Linebacker Alonzo Whaley raced in and stopped Ball behind the line of scrimmage. The ball bounced away and Harvey Jackson recovered for the Huskers.
“I think we got some good penetration,” Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “It was a hell of feeling when we picked up that ball. We told our guys, in this league you have to use up four blockers with two guys inside. I saw Whaley coming downhill on that and he made a great play.”
Early on, Nebraska made some critical mistakes on both sides of the ball, which led to a 27-10 deficit in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Chase Rome said as a defense, “sometimes we are a little bit blunderish. I’m not sure if that’s a word, but the offense picks us up when that happens, and we pick them up sometimes, too.”
Will Compton led Nebraska with 10 tackles, including three for loss, Whaley added nine tackles, two of them for loss. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler had five tackles and one big sack on Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave.
Challenges (Ohio State and Northwestern) loom ahead, but Papuchis thinks the defense responded well to adversity Saturday.
“I think our guys are realists,” Papuchis said. “They understand why negative things happened. We didn’t execute a couple of coverages, but other than that we didn’t give up a lot of big plays on defense. We have some things to clean up. I don’t want to portray this as a perfect defensive performance, but it keeps getting better.”