It was a play in the Michigan game. P.J. Smith didn’t specify which play. He just remembers it was one Husker coaches had talked about all week.
“When they get in this formation, they’re going to do this,” coaches had harped during practice.
But now the lights were on. Sometimes people forget what was said on a Tuesday or Wednesday when the lights are on.
No one forgot this time. When Michigan lined up in that formation, Smith saw at least five teammates pointing, a chorus of voices saying: “Watch the play! Watch the play!”
The ball was snapped. The Wolverines ran exactly what everyone on the Nebraska defense expected them to run.
That’s what paying attention to the details gets you, says Smith, NU's senior safety.
And he thinks Husker defenders have been giving those details a lot more notice since Ohio State put up 63 points against them.
It’s not as if guys weren’t studying before, Smith says. But in the past three weeks, there’s been something different about the way they've approached the game.
“You walk into the DB room and you've got linebackers and secondary players who have been up there for two hours, sitting and watching film together,” he said. “At first there wasn’t as many guys. There were a few of us. But now you see a lot more guys up there.”
Suddenly revitalized, coming off holding Michigan to nine points and 188 yards, Nebraska’s defense would seem in prime position to ride its momentum to a big finish.
The agile quarterbacks that perhaps worried the Huskers the most – Braxton Miller, Kain Colter, Denard Robinson – are in the past. Next up are offenses that, on paper, seem to fit tidily in the NU defense’s wheelhouse.
This week’s foe, Michigan State, for example. The Spartans' offense has struggled mightily, lacking the mobility at quarterback that has sent Husker fans into hives, and mostly proving scoring-challenged (108th nationally).
The Spartans have a talented, 240-pound running back in Le’Veon Bell – “a beast,” Smith says – but the Husker defense has the confidence of standing tall against another hard-charging back – Wisconsin's Montee Ball (32 carries, 90 yards) – earlier this season.
“Me, personally, what I think is their style of offense falls into our strengths," said senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley. "When you pack us in and try to run it, nobody's really had success towards our defense. So in a sense, I think it goes to what our strengths are.”
Clearly, confidence rests with a Husker defense that has made a significant climb up the statistical rankings the last two weeks.
Ranked 46th in total defense and 74th in scoring defense heading into the Northwestern game, Nebraska now is 26th and 55th in those respective categories.
But this is also the part where those who have followed Nebraska football closely know a caution flag should be waved.
In the recent past, some significant Husker victories have been followed by stomach-dropping defeats.
Seniors on this team need no reminders. In 2009, a comeback win at Missouri was followed by losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State. In 2010, a dominating performance at Kansas State was followed by a letdown loss to Texas. In 2011, a three-touchdown win against No. 9 Michigan State was followed by a home loss to Northwestern.
Why do the Huskers believe this group will handle success better?
“I think that’s the difference in this team right now as a whole from where we came from and all the things we’ve been through,” Whaley said. “We really focus on next week and not what lies after that.
“You can’t stand around worrying about Michigan. I’ve honestly forgotten about Michigan already.”
Sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah hasn’t been through the program's ups and downs as long as Whaley, but he sees the same encouraging traits in this team.
“I think the guys are responding well,” he said. “They understand that with each win, the next week is even more important. A lot of guys are focusing up. I see guys in the film room earlier than they have been, so that’s a good sign.”
There’s also an understanding that Michigan State – first in the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense – is capable of keeping the Spartans around in any game.
Michigan State may be 5-4, but is coming off an energizing road win at Wisconsin, a win that allows the Spartans the chance to become bowl-eligible with a win Saturday.
Husker coach Bo Pelini said he knows a stiff challenge awaits.
The attention to detail has paid off the past two weeks for the Huskers. But with the Legends Division race still neck-and-neck, any lapse could erase the opportunity the past two wins have provided.
"My message to the team is you get what you earn in this world,” Pelini said. “They are not going to give you anything. You have to earn it and you have to be ready to go take it. It's as simple as that.
"It's not going to just happen by mistake. It's not going to happen by magic. You have to put the work in and match the work ethic and the process with what you want the result to be."