LINCOLN — Five turnovers, two forced fumbles, 12 tackles for loss and four interceptions — two of which were returned back for touchdowns. That was the night the Blackshirts put together on Saturday.
Southern Miss, Nebraska’s opponent, is winless in its past 14 games, but the performance the Nebraska defense had in a 56-13 victory on Saturday had to make coaches, players and fans breathe a little easier after last week’s ugly debut against Wyoming.
“It was a lot cleaner than a week ago. I saw a lot of progress,” said Head Coach Bo Pelini, whose 23rd-ranked Huskers are off to a 2-0 start. “I saw a lot better communication. I think our understanding of the game plan improved, so, therefore, our preparation improved.”
The defense took control just three plays into the contest when Southern Miss senior quarterback Allan Bridgford’s pass was intercepted by NU senior corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste and returned for a 43-yard touchdown.
That play, Pelini said, was a huge lift for the young D.
“Anytime you grab the momentum like that and bait the quarterback like that — (Jean-Baptiste) made a great break on it, a nice play,” the coach said. “On that particular coverage you don’t have help over the top, so he played the technique the way he was supposed to play, and he took a chance and made a heck of a play on the ball. I thought Stanley overall played a good game.”
Then, a few moments later in the first quarter, senior corner Ciante Evans intercepted a tipped pass and also took it to the end zone for a 22-yard return.
Those two plays highlighted an impressive night for the defense. Southern Miss finished with just yards of total offense, including just 62 yards on the ground. Wyoming had more than 300 yards of total offense in the first half in the season opener.
Sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory remarked at the defense’s improved outing.
“I think we did a better job of preparing this week than we did last week. We had a more serious approach and that showed on the field,” said Gregory, who didn’t record a sack but was a regular in Southern Miss’s backfield most of the night as he accounted for four tackles and four quarterback hurries. “We had a few plays where we gave up really big (yardage) last week. We felt like (Southern Miss) would come out this week and use the same kind of plays against us. The coaches did a great job of setting us up with new plays.
“We were able to come back and have a better game this week.”
Meanwhile, the offense played with a better sense of urgency, accounting for 479 yards of total offense. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez finished 15-of-23 passing for 170 yards and three touchdowns, while junior running back Ameer Abdullah led the ground game with 114 yards and two scores.
“The O-Line got a really good push. They cut off the backside. The O-Line pretty much did all the work,” Abdullah said. “The receivers were out on the perimeter all day. I do all the easy stuff. They do all the hard work. I tip my hat to those guys.”
The offense was especially efficient in the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back one-play possessions in a 53-second span.
The first was a 37-yard scamper from Abdullah, which was set up by a 63-yard kick return from junior wide receiver Kenny Bell, to put the score at 42-13.
Then, Martinez hit sophomore walk-on Sam Burtch on a 26-yard pass after Evans’ second interception of the contest to boost the lead to 49-13.
“When (Sam) came in the game last week, I threw the pick. But I was glad I could come back and throw the touchdown pass to him,” Martinez said. “I’m glad he got open and that I was able to get him the football.”
Burtch was just a handful of new names who made a big impact in the blowout win.
True freshman Josh Banderas got the nod over sophomore David Santos at the middle linebacker spot and played like a seasoned vet in his first and unexpected start.
“I wasn’t really nervous, just excited, happy and on another level. My legs weren’t shaking, and I wasn’t about to throw up. It was just a happy mood for me,” said Banderas, who finished with three tackles and one pass breakup. “It’s what I wanted, but I didn’t know it would hop up on me this fast. I’m going to take it in stride and keep working and improving this week.
“Hopefully, I’ll solidify a starting spot if I can.”
Added Evans: “(Banderas) took control of that linebacker spot. Being the middle linebacker is not easy, but he was in command today. He was put in God’s right position and was giving it to God to play. I just think he did a phenomenal job today, especially starting as a freshman.”
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong also made his first appearance as a Husker, rushing the ball out of the option four times for 23 yards. His first drive was nine plays and 64 yards, resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Imani Cross.
Now the Huskers turn their attention to UCLA for its most-anticipated non-conference game Saturday at 11 a.m. in Lincoln. Last season, the Bruins embarrassed the Blackshirt defense with 600-plus yards of total offense in a 36-30 win.
“We just have to go out there and play our game. If we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’ll be fine,” Martinez said. “Hopefully, our defense got a huge confidence boost from this. I’m really happy for our defense, and I hope they can play like this next week.”
NOTES: NU is now 2-0 for the fifth time in Bo Pelini’s six seasons as head coach…NU has won 10 consecutive games at home, the longest streak since 2002…The two interceptions by Evans marked the first time a Cornhusker had multiple INTs in a game since Matt O’ Hanlon had three against Oklahoma in 2009…The three touchdown passes by Martinez marked the fifth time in his career where he has thrown for three or more touchdowns, including each of the first two games this season.