ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Remember the Nebraska defense that gave up 38 straight points to UCLA? The Nebraska defense that allowed an FCS running back to run for 123 yards in a single quarter?
Where did those guys go?
The same names are on the backs of their jerseys, but it's clear the Blackshirts are getting better, especially the past two weeks. Saturday’s dominating defensive performance in a 17-13 victory against Michigan is just an extension of the corner-turning effort against Northwestern last week.
“I don’t want to make a declaration of what the next three games are going to be like, but maybe we’re growing up and starting to become the defense we thought we could be,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Certainly, this is the defense I foresaw down the road with as many young guys as we’re playing on the front seven.”
“Down the road” arrived at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. The Huskers held Michigan to minus 21 yards rushing, tied for the sixth-fewest in Nebraska history. The Wolverines were just 3-of-15 on third down (and 1-of-3 on fourth down). Only two of Michigan’s 13 possessions gained more than 16 yards.
The Huskers’ aggressive, go-for-broke defense posted seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss, the most negative plays by a Nebraska defense since the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game against Texas.
The tone was set early. Michigan went three-and-out on its first possession and gained a single yard.
You could say the Huskers were pumped about that first stop. Just listen to senior defensive end Jason Ankrah: “I don’t even know how the first series went. I just blacked out because of how excited I was.”
On the Wolverines' second possession, quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked by linebacker Zaire Anderson for a 10-yard loss on first down and for an 11-yard loss on third down by defensive tackle Thad Randle.
Michigan never again even sniffed the positive side of the rushing ledger.
There were some bumps along the way to the final fourth-down stop to seal NU's victory. To start the second half, Michigan found some gaps with short passes to running backs and tight ends, and moved 75 yards in 10 plays to score a touchdown and tie the game at 10.
The Huskers turned the ball over twice deep in their territory in the second half, once on a muffed punt return by Jordan Westerkamp and another on a fumble after a catch by Quincy Enunwa. Through both of those backs-to-the-wall situations, Nebraska allowed just a single field goal.
“We know that we don’t want people getting into the end zone no more,” Ankrah said. “We don’t want to give points up anymore.”
When the game came down to one final stop needed, the defense delivered.
“We practice the 2-minute drill every Wednesday,” senior defensive back Ciante Evans said. “I know those guys (the Blackshirts) were ready, I know they were amped. Those guys were like, this is just another series where we have to go out and get another stop, but this time it was for all the marbles.”
On third-and-4 with 1:13 to play, the Husker secondary locked up every receiver and defensive end Randy Gregory recorded his third sack of the game. On fourth-and-5 with 1:02 left, Papuchis called a timeout.
His message to the defense?
"We’re coming, boys,” he told them.
Evans said he made an on-field adjustment to how Nebraska covered Michigan's stacked receiver set. Gardner’s hurried pass went through the hands of Drew Dileo because of the tight coverage by Josh Mitchell, giving the ball to the Huskers.
“That’s the best we’ve played together as a defense,” Ankrah said. “We were just having fun.
"This is Michigan, enough said. So you have to come out here for an away game and create your own energy and create your own atmosphere in somebody else’s home. So that’s what we did. We got here in the locker room getting hyped up, then we got on the field hyped up. Then it was a good game for us the rest of the way.”