LINCOLN — At some point late in Saturday's game, when Nebraska seemed to be in control, senior Stanley Jean-Baptiste saw something on the sideline he didn't like.
He and his teammates in the secondary, who'd set the tone emphatically early with big hits, physical play and an intimidating demeanor, had lost their edge. They were exhaling, even though time still remained and Wyoming had already flashed some big-play potential.
And the Cowboys took advantage.
Nebraska ultimately held on for a 37-34 win, but the NU defensive backs — considered to be the strength of an inexperienced defense — were gashed for 256 passing yards after halftime.
“We got more relaxed,” Jean-Baptiste said. “On the sideline, everybody kept playing around, wasn't taking everything seriously. We just lost focus, and they rallied back.”
It didn't take long, either.
Four fourth-quarter completions on five consecutive attempts went for 114 yards and two scores, shrinking a once-comfortable 16-point lead to three in just five minutes of game action.
Senior Ciante Evans got beat up the seam. He tried to knock the ball down, but missed, allowing a 29-yard touchdown to Jalen Claiborne that pulled Wyoming within 37-27 with 6:02 left.
On the first play of the Cowboys' next drive, junior Josh Mitchell missed an open-field tackle and surrendered a 15-yard gain. Two snaps later, junior Corey Cooper failed to bring down Robert Herron, who galloped into the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown, trimming the deficit to 37-34.
“A lot of times, we had bodies on bodies, guys in position to make plays,” coach Bo Pelini said. “We didn't quite do it.”
Wyoming's experience on offense allowed the Cowboys to vary their looks and make adjustments on the fly, which created some issues for Nebraska at times, according to Pelini. “They caught us in a couple man coverages,” he said.
There was also the well-planned strategy to motion a running back out of the backfield and into a receiver-like position just before the snap. The NU cornerbacks soon had to adjust to take away that quick swing pass.
Problem was, by the end of the game, they were all anticipating that play too often (even when it wasn't there), leaving the defense vulnerable elsewhere. Secondary coach Terry Joseph said hesitancy freed up more hitches and curls for Wyoming's receivers.
“Take your hat off to those guys,” Joseph said. “They did some things, obviously, that we didn't see (on film).”
The athleticism of quarterback Brett Smith was an issue, too. The junior effectively evaded the rush and bought time for his receivers to break open downfield.
Joseph said the Huskers needed to stay in coverage longer in those situations. Jean-Baptiste had a similar assessment, though he noted that Smith was a little more agile than he'd expected.
Smith finished with a career-high 29 completions and had four passing touchdowns for the fourth time in his career. He threw for a total of 383 yards.
“I've had a special guy a few times in my career and he fits that bill,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. “He is different from all the other guys.”
Nebraska's defensive backs won many of the battles early in Saturday's game.
Cooper broke up a pass on third down to end Wyoming's first possession.
Later in the first quarter, Jean-Baptiste located the football on a deep ball and played it like a receiver would, shielding off the Wyoming player with his body and plucking it at its highest point. Jean-Baptiste said he was expected the post route and simply ran to the middle of the field on that play.
He also fought through a block and brought down Claiborne, forcing a punt not too long after that. Two drives later, Jean-Baptiste got the Huskers off the field again by hitting Trey Norman as he attempted to haul in a pass and knocking the ball away (good for a break-up).
In the fourth quarter, the Huskers weren't fooled by a trick play as freshman Nate Gerry hit receiver Norman as he threw and Evans made the diving interception.
Mitchell had a sack on Wyoming's two-point conversion attempt, what could have cut NU's lead to eight.
The 60-minute-long performance was not their standard, though. That was the message Evans shared with his defensive back teammates in the locker room.
“It's better coming from him,” Joseph said. “He knows it wasn't good enough. But we got the win. Being the first game of the season, it's a learning experience.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Quincy Enunwa at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference: