LINCOLN — The blister was ripe to be popped. The pressure from mental errors, missed tackles and withering criticism had built up in Nebraska's defense for a week, and the unit twitched with excitement as Southern Mississippi started its first possession Saturday night.
Husker senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste lanced the boil three plays into the game. He jumped a pass route so well it looked as though USM's pass was intended for him, and he returned the interception for a touchdown. The angst of a long, ugly night against Wyoming floated away with the customary red balloons.
“Everybody was excited,” Jean-Baptiste said.
“It was a huge boost,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said.
“We got our swagger,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said.
During NU's 56-13 walkover win, the defense kept doubts at bay — for one night, for one week — by smothering the Golden Eagles' offense with a secondary that picked off four passes and scored two touchdowns, plus a pass rush that perpetually brought the heat. It spurred the Huskers' offense to eventually shrug off its sluggish start and rack up 479 yards and 42 points of its own.
But the night belonged to the boys with scrutiny surrounding them: the Blackshirts.
They held USM to 284 total yards — a scant 58 after halftime — and 62 rushing yards. The spread passing plays Wyoming had used to gash NU were defended tightly, with the Huskers handing off coverage to one another with skill and execution. Nebraska snuffed out the dive play early in the game, and thus took aim at immobile USM quarterback Allan Bridgford, who left the game in the fourth quarter.
“I thought it was a lot cleaner than a week ago,” coach Bo Pelini said of the unit he's molded throughout his tenure. “I saw a lot of progress. I saw a lot better communication. I saw a lot better understanding of our game plan — therefore our preparation was better across the board.”
In front of 90,466 fans at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers (2-0 overall) started two true freshmen on defense — including middle linebacker Josh Banderas, who said he “dropped a load in my pants” upon finding out he'd start this week — but it was the more experienced secondary players who served themselves in a defining first quarter.
First, Jean-Baptiste stepped in front of a hitch route that he'd studied on film, picked off Bridgford and galloped 43 yards into the end zone just 73 seconds into the game. Nebraska hadn't scored so quickly on a pick-six since 1993.
“He baited the quarterback, and he made a nice break on it,” Pelini said. “In that particular coverage, he doesn't have a lot of help over the top, so he played the technique the way he was supposed to play it. He took a chance and made a heck of a play.”
It was then, Martinez said, that he sensed the defense was “on a mission.”
Senior Ciante Evans chimed in with a 22-yard interception return for a score at the end of the first quarter. Bridgford's pass went through the hands of USM receiver Tyre'oune Holmes and fell into Evans' chest. He bolted to the corner of the end zone to give the Huskers a 21-3 lead.
“I was right there,” Evans said. “And that's all she wrote.”
Southern Mississippi, which fell to 0-2 and lost its 14th straight game, never seriously threatened afterward. Nebraska notched only one sack, but had seven more hurries against Bridgford, who was often trying to unload the ball as fast as he could to avoid another hit from defensive end Randy Gregory, who pile-drove the quarterback into the turf more than once.
“They started to pin their ears back,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said.
NU's offense, after three-and-outs on two of its first three drives, finally jammed itself out of neutral, playing to the bottom of its depth chart by night's end.
Martinez threw three touchdowns and completed 65 percent of his passes for 170 yards. He executed an 11-play, 75-yard, three-minute drive at the end of the first half that culminated in a 21-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell — Bell tipped the ball to himself in traffic as he fell to the turf — for a 35-6 halftime lead. Martinez was out of the game midway through the third quarter, giving way to backups Ron Kellogg and Tommy Armstrong.
The Huskers had to contend again, Martinez said, with a defense they knew little about. They ran for 285 yards — including Ameer Abdullah for 114 yards and two touchdowns — and completed passes to nine receivers.
“As we looked back on how we prepared for them, I think we were pretty good,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I think we were pretty right on figuring out kind of what they were trying to do and for us to have answers for them.”
Answers — and smiles — were abundant for the Huskers after the game. Freshmen talked at length. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski — stuck wearily against a counter after the Wyoming game — laughed and shared stories of Gregory, his junior-college find that USM struggled to block. NU will head into UCLA week, Gregory said, having worked out a few “kinks” in the defense. Jean-Baptiste agreed.
“This was a big game for us to get our confidence back,” he said. “We just had to get everything together. Play fast, make some plays.”
The Bruins were undoubtedly watching. They had the week off to prepare. Nebraska and UCLA will kick off next Saturday's college football menu with an 11 a.m. kickoff on ABC, an onion-ring appetizer to Alabama-Texas A&M later in the day. The game will attract a big audience, and the Huskers seemed to know it; plenty of them mentioned the four-letter acronym that ran up 653 yards in the Rose Bowl last year for a 36-30 win.
A reporter pressed Pelini for thoughts on the Bruins. The coach offered the usual platitudes about the game being a “good matchup” and NU needed to improve in practice this week. But one line of his answer stuck out.
“I'm familiar with what they did a year ago,” he said.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Josh Banderas after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Randy Gregory after the Southern Miss game: