LINCOLN — For all the grief the Nebraska defense took in a porous performance against Wyoming, the Blackshirts came up with big plays early Saturday against Southern Miss in Lincoln, scoring two touchdowns on interceptions and putting a little energy in a unit that looked lost in week one.
Nebraska coaches obviously experimented in practice by moving parts of that defense around to get the best 11 guys on the field.
True freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry appear to be Nebraska’s top two guys at that position — hands down.
Against Southern Miss they were all over the field, making good reads, covering receivers out of the backfield, plugging the gaps on the run and Banderas was a whisker away from an interception in the first quarter.
Though much has been made about sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory coming off the edge, Nebraska started the game with Gregory in a stand-up position at linebacker along with Banderas and Gerry.
It’s clear that after giving up 602 total yards last week to Wyoming, coaches saw something on film that pointed to a need to improve play at linebacker. It clearly was at a premium in game two.
Though Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson saw the field against Southern Miss behind Banderas and Gerry, sophomore David Santos didn’t play until the end of the third quarter. Instead, Nebraska mixed and matched guys, playing mostly nickel and dime and often left Banderas and Gerry on the field even against the Southern Miss spread offense.
Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said Banderas and Gerry earned it in practice, although he expects Santos to continue pressing.
“You hope he responds,” Pelini said about Santos.
“He knew what the stakes were in practice. I know David and I know what kind of competitor he is.”
Pelini said although his defense is a work in progress, it’s improving.
“I thought we made good progress,” he said. “There were a number of mistakes, but I thought it was a lot cleaner than a week ago. I saw better communication. Every single day is important for this football team.”
Much of the yardage Nebraska yielded last week came right through the heart of the NU defense, where Wyoming backs were allowed to run free once they broke through the line of scrimmage.
Against Southern Miss there were fewer broken assignments in coverage, as Banderas and Gerry clearly have the speed to keep up with backs and receivers.
For the most part Nebraska’s secondary answered the bell all night long, save for a third-quarter touchdown pass.
On Southern Miss’ first possession of the game corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste picked off an Allan Bridgford pass and raced 38 yards for a touchdown. Though the Golden Eagles drove deep into Nebraska territory in the first half, a series of penalties and NU pressure forced Bridgford into making bad decisions.
Near the end of the first quarter corner, Ciante Evans picked off a pass and raced 22 yards for a second defensive touchdown for NU. The last time Nebraska had two picks for touchdowns came against Idaho in 2010. A second Evans interception in the third quarter led to a 26-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez to Sam Burtch to make it 49-13.
Probably smart not to get too excited by Nebraska’s performance in game two against a Southern Miss program in the dumps, but NU took care of business ahead of one of its biggest games of the season against UCLA.
Early on the Nebraska offense struggled to get on track against a Southern Miss defense that was fast and aggressive. By the middle of the third quarter, however, NU started to impose its will as the offensive line, Ameer Abdullah and others began to blow holes in the line of scrimmage.
Rebuilding this defense is a process. We’ll know more about this team in game three. UCLA obviously will test Nebraska in every facet of the game, so you hope the adjustments made from week one to week two are for real.
Perhaps there’s no way to know yet how this young team will react to the real adversity it will face next week. When it comes to young guys it’s clear the ability is there, but now coaches have to hope they’ve picked up the mental aspect of the game.
Remember last year when UCLA’s speed on offense made it nearly impossible for Nebraska linebackers to cover receivers out of the backfield?
If anything, we’ve learned early on that Nebraska seems to be better equipped to pick up those backs out of the backfield, now it’s a matter of the young guys making the right reads.
The mental part of the game will be at a premium this week.