It was probably the second-biggest play of the game Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Avery Moss’s 25-yard interception return for a touchdown tied the game at 21 midway through the third quarter and came in the middle of what turned out to be a dominating – yes, dominating – defensive performance in the Huskers' 27-24 win against Northwestern.
After allowing nearly 200 yards and 21 points in the first 19 minutes of the game, Nebraska’s defense somehow turned everything around, stopped the Wildcats on 11 consecutive possessions.
“I don’t really know if there was just one point where it clicked for us,” freshman linebacker Josh Banderas said. “But after we gave up those three score, we were like, ‘Not this again. We’re not going to let this happen again,’ and we got the stops.”
Trailing 21-14 midway through the third quarter, Nebraska’s defense had been getting better on each series. Moss, a defensive end, played off a block, leaped up and picked off a Trevor Siemian pass in the flat. He raced untouched into the end zone and Pat Smith's extra-point kick tied the game.
“It was a cut block on the play,” said Moss, who also contributed four tackles and a sack. “I remember pushing him (the lineman) down and watching the quarterback. I knew he was gonna throw, so I just put my hands up and it (the ball) fell right in. It was a morale boost. We all got hyped and, after that, it got contagious. They (the Wildcats) couldn’t hold us at all. I felt like that took a lot of their momentum away. We just rolled off after that.”
The athletic play by the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Moss made a big impression on Husker defensive backs coach Terry Joseph.
“It was weird to have a guy like (former Husker Ndamukong) Suh here today. I feel like the defensive line is the most important position on the defense, because those guys can change games. That’s what happened with Avery and Randy (Gregory) making big plays today.”
Gregory’s big play came after an interception set up Northwestern at the Nebraska 7-yard line late in the game. On third-and-goal from the 2, Gregory stayed home and spilled Kain Colter for a 2-yard loss to force a field goal that gave Northwestern a 24-21 lead with 1:20 to play.
The big plays by Moss and Gregory – along with five tackles for loss by cornerback Ciante Evans – ended up turning the Husker defense from a sieve to a stone wall in the final three quarters. There was a big adjustment from a three-man front with Moss and Gregory working as linebackers back to a four-man front. Head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis asked the players what they wanted to do, and they chose the four-man front. That led to big plays, a shift in momentum and the Husker crowd finally getting into the game.
“The thing with us is the players realized it was not so much what Northwestern was doing, but it was about us getting in our fits, staying in our gaps and tackling,” Joseph said. “At halftime, it wasn’t about two pages of adjustments, it was just staying in the right place, staying disciplined and finishing plays. We got after it a little bit and played with more energy.”