LINCOLN — Nebraska assistant coach Rick Kaczenski was relating a story about defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler on Saturday, but it might as well have been about the Huskers' defense in general.
Kaczenski said the recent play of the fifth-year senior had been getting the attention of NFL visitors. They had been remarking about his improvement.
“All the scouts, everybody that comes through, say this guy's a different guy the last four weeks of the season,” Kaczenski said. “Just continues to get better and better and better.”
Steinkuhler is a fifth-year senior. Somebody who's been around the Husker program since 2008. But he's also just 23 with, presumably, some good years of football still ahead of him.
“These guys at 22 years old, they haven't reached their potential,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “And each one of our seniors, I hope, has gotten better as the year's gone on, or else they're not doing their job or we're not doing our job as coaches.”
The moral of the story is that there was still room for this Husker defense to grow at midseason although the unit was heavy with fifth-year seniors — and hurting from rough nights in the first half of the year at UCLA and Ohio State.
The Blackshirts weren't done — as long as they didn't let themselves be.
Nebraska is allowing 19.6 points and 283.6 yards during a five-game winning streak and has forced 10 turnovers in the past four. The latest feather in the helmet came Saturday as the Blackshirts locked down on Minnesota during a 38-14 victory in which a shutout remained a possibility until midway through the fourth quarter when NU reserves were filtering in.
“Those guys have a lot more to do with it than us coaches,” said Kaczenski, NU's new defensive line coach. “They make the choice every single day at practice — in every single drill and every single period — to get better. You can see it. And they see the dividends pay off on Saturday.”
This particular Saturday also happened to be the end of the line at Memorial Stadium for several defensive veterans, including Steinkuhler, Will Compton, Cameron Meredith, P.J. Smith and several others from head coach Bo Pelini's first signing class in 2008.
And many in that crew were front and center among those being openly questioned before the Huskers started their recent run at a Big Ten championship.
“Certainly at 4-2 (after the Ohio State loss) we weren't pleased with where we were at, and especially we weren't pleased where we were at defensively,” Papuchis said. “And, to a man, I think our seniors on the defensive side stepped up.”
Compton made a team-high 10 tackles against Minnesota. Alonzo Whaley added five. Daimion Stafford intercepted a pass.
It was another step in the right direction.
“We've just been playing week by week,” Meredith said. “There's been a couple close ones, but I think the character of this football team has really carried us.”
Character and resiliency have been musts.
In the past year alone, Nebraska changed defensive coordinators from Carl Pelini to Papuchis and added Kaczenski and Terry Joseph (secondary) to the defensive staff. Ross Els (linebackers) came aboard the year before, when the Huskers also had to adjust to the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.
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To their credit, the seniors never stopped plugging along.
“It's special for those guys,” said Joseph, the Huskers' third secondary coach in as many years. “What happens is they mature. They understand that it's the little details in their play that allows them to have success.”
Forget the names dotting the depth chart — Papuchis said the relationships will be the hardest thing to replace. That's why Eric Martin said it “got to me a little bit” as he shook hands and shared a moment with Bo Pelini during the senior introductions.
The NU defense then went out and held Minnesota to 177 total yards and allowed the Gophers to convert just 1 of 13 third downs.
Still trying to get better. Right to the end.
“It's hard to define when you're really hitting your stride, but I think we are making improvements week to week,” Papuchis said. “And as long as we keep doing that and we can keep on this track, I think by the end of the year we can be in the position that we'd like to be.”
NU junior Ciante Evans said the seniors deserved to see it end the way it did Saturday. The veterans were the ones who helped hold it together when times were tough.
“We wanted to leave it all out there for them today,” Evans said. “It was their day. So we didn't want to disappoint them.”
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>> Video: Jon Nyatawa's postgame analysis:
>> Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU senior P.J. Smith after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: NU's Kenny Bell after the Minnesota game:
>> Video: Tom Osborne leads NU onto the field:
>> Video: The Husker seniors are honored:
>> Video: A tribute to Tom Osborne:
>> Video: Nebraska-Minnesota game highlights: