LINCOLN — Ol’ what’s-his-name will be in Chicago on Sunday. Straps it on for real in the National Football League. What was his number again? I think his name rhymed with “Lou.’’
OK, Ndamukong Suh hasn’t been gone from Memorial Stadium that long. It’s been only two games without the big guy. But by now, the size of the hole he left behind was supposed to be clearer.
Could Nebraska win without him? Could the Blackshirts play without him? Would the defense actually be — gulp — better without him, as Bo and Carl Pelini said in the offseason? Who would fill his shoes? Would Jared Crick, the big country hoss from Cozad, Neb., slide over into immortality?
Well, we got a better idea Saturday, a beauty of a college football Saturday in the giant red fishbowl.
One person can’t replace Suh. In fact, it might take four, five or six men.
It’s early and the Blackshirts haven’t left the time zone yet. That comes next weekend. But for now, the early leaders to replace Suh are the Nebraska secondary.
You knew going in they would be good. But Saturday they were different. They were dominant. They were fighting ninjas falling down from the sky. They took this game in their ball-hawking hands and never gave it back.
There were five interceptions, two returned for touchdowns in a three-interception second quarter that changed the game. Neither of those were records. The 2005 Huskers had two “pick-sixes’’ in a forgettable 2005 win against Wake Forest. NU had five picks against Oklahoma’s wide-eyed Landry Jones last year.
But it wasn’t just the dizzying rush of plays. It was their energy. Their confidence. Swagger. Call it what you will, but this is a group that can change the game. They do that by setting up shop in the quarterback’s head.
Can a secondary carry a football team? Boy, good question. These guys remind you of a dominant offensive line, say vintage pipeline 1994-95. Or a triplets backfield, circa the 1983 “Scoring Explosion.’’ Or last year’s NU defensive line, for that matter. And let’s not forget that Pierre Allen and Crick return from that group.
Will they have to carry the team? Better question. Taylor Martinez is a redshirt freshman. He’s going to have his ups and downs, especially on the road. We don’t know yet if the middle of the defense can handle a true rushing attack. The good news is, other than Kansas State, they may not face a really good running game this year.
Could be a very good year to have a very good secondary.
NU needed the guys in back Saturday. The offense spent much of the day in implosion mode. Six of the 10 penalties were on that side of the ball. Eight fumbles, three lost. Take away two of the picks for scores and it’s 24-17. Good thing Iowa State wasn’t in Lincoln.
The D-line, after a somewhat sluggish start last week, was gangbusters. Crick, Allen, Baker Steinkuhler and Terrence Moore played with smoke pouring out of their ear holes. But some of those sacks (seven) and quarterback hurrries (three) came because Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle held the ball too long.
That’s because he couldn’t find an open receiver.
“Last year Suh and the other (linemen) probably helped us out,’’ said safety-linebacker DeJon Gomes. “We want to do our part for them. We’re all a team, helping each other. It’s just kind of a chain reaction thing.’’
Clearly, NU defensive coordinator Carl Pelini knew who had to start the reaction. In meetings Friday night, he implored his secondary ninjas to get the ball rolling, so to speak.
They did and then some. These aren’t pretty boys. They know how to get their knee pads dirty. Gomes led the team with 10 tackles, six solo. Prince Amukamara had seven, safety Rickey Thenarse six and P.J. Smith five.
“That’s the kind of football we expect from them,’’ Carl Pelini said. “That was our message last night. Challenge them. Attack the route. And that’s what they did. These guys have been around. They study. They know what’s coming.’’
It made it easier that Enderle looked down his receivers. The ninjas just had to get to the ball with the receiver and wrestle it away. No problem against the Vandals. Might be a tougher proposition against Jake Locker and the Huskies next weekend.
This will be where we find out about this secondary, about the defense. About the Suh factor. Why not? It was at this point last year that it all fell together. A year ago Suh wasn’t doing commercials. He had yet to open eyes. But then it was during week three, at Virginia Tech, where No. 93 — it was 93, right? — asserted himself. Two games later, at Missouri, a legend was born in the rain.
We’ll find out a bunch next week. Locker likes to run, and he’s good at it. He’ll keep NU’s pass rush honest and make the young linebackers pay for mistakes. Will Pelini cheat up a safety to shadow him? Will Gomes, the able tackler, play a little extra linebacker?
The senior safety is an intriguing guy. He is a playmaker extraordinaire. Nose for the ball, all that jazz. He is, as they say, a football player. Gomes is Mr. Energy out there, and he looks like as good a candidate as any to be the next Mr. Suh.
Funny thing, fate. Gomes was a running back out of high school. His junior college coach moved him to defensive back because he needed help there.
“I still miss (running back) a little bit,’’ Gomes said. “I’ll just try to get my hands on the ball as much as I can.’’
So far, so good.
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