LINCOLN — It looked like a clean, cruel uppercut right to P.J. Smith’s chin.
Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell — at 6-foot-2, 244-pounds — lowered a massive shoulder into the Nebraska safety and delivered the blow with a pop audible throughout Spartan Stadium. Smith recoiled and fell backward.
And his NU teammates have been teasing him about getting trucked ever since.
“I made a joke in the locker room this morning that his dad took his jersey off in the stands once he got ran over like that,” linebacker Alonzo Whaley said. “(Smith) hasn’t heard the end of it.”
But here’s one thing: Smith pulled Bell down with him, and Michigan State eventually punted.
And here’s a second thing: He didn’t ask for a play off.
“He took one of the hardest hits I’ve seen as a coach, and he got right back up,” secondary coach Terry Joseph said.
And here’s a third: Two drives later, Smith, without fear, met Bell in the middle of a big hole and made a key tackle that helped Nebraska force a punt and eventually win the game.
That’s Smith as a senior: Shaking off mistakes. Making 60 tackles — and grabbing two interceptions — so far this year. Staying on the field instead of letting one mistake drive him off of it.
“He’s tackling better, he’s playing faster and he’s playing with some real confidence,” Joseph said.
That wasn’t always the case for Smith, who started three games in the 2010 season, got benched midway through the year and then spent the next year-and-a-half battling for playing time.
Joseph, who took the defensive backs job last spring, watched film of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder and saw a guy not quite trusting his own skills.
“There were times when he wasn’t the best player that P.J. can be,” said Joseph, who’s tried to instill a different mind-set in his unit. “Never think: I’m not going to make the play,” he said. “Think: How am I going to make it?”
Smith found himself reviewing one of those plays after the 63-38 loss to Ohio State. You might remember the one: OSU quarterback Braxton Miller ran 72 yards through the Husker defense, with Smith hesitating to tackle Miller, choosing instead to force the Buckeye toward other NU defenders.
“I thought if he would outrun me to the sideline, it’s a touchdown,” Smith said. “I was just trying to make him cut back.”
In hindsight, Smith said, he should have “shot my gun” and gone for the tackle.
He’s done plenty of that since — 25 tackles in three games, including 12 at Michigan State. He isn’t satisfied with his play — “I left some plays out on the field. I could have helped the team out with some more turnovers and communicating better,” he said — and he’ll continue to get razzed for the hit he took from Bell. But Smith has a decent retort.
“I finished the game, right?” he said.
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