LINCOLN — Northwestern began its final drive 7 yards from Nebraska's end zone Saturday, and Husker defenders were talking to each other about stripping the football, stealing back the momentum and keeping the score tied.
This was the same defensive unit that had been flattened play after play at Minnesota one week earlier, frustrated by an inability to stop the basic running schemes it had prepared for extensively during practice.
“Our guys were pretty confident — matter of fact, they were talking about getting the ball out,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I kind of had to temper it down. … You have to tackle first.”
Nebraska's players didn't force that fumble, instead holding Northwestern to a field goal and setting the stage for Jordan Westerkamp's 49-yard touchdown grab on the final play of the game to give the Huskers a 27-24 win.
The immediate reward was the mob scene that took place just outside the south end zone.
But the long-term result of that fourth-quarter stand (and the 11 consecutive stops before it) could be season-changing. That's what the players hope, anyway.
“We see our capabilities,” redshirt freshman defensive end Avery Moss said. “We see the talent that we have when we put our mind to it. We just feel like we can't be stopped, and we're really going to need that type of energy going into Michigan.”
For whatever reason, they didn't realize their potential before Saturday. Most of the Huskers have been hesitant and tentative all year, fearful of making that costly mistake and not certain enough to capitalize when given the opportunity.
But that changed in the second quarter against Northwestern.
“Confidence is a crazy thing,” Papuchis said. “You start believing in what you're doing, you start believing in what the coaches are telling you, you start playing well.”
Soon Nebraska was tackling better. And hitting harder.
The cornerbacks weren't letting receivers gain separation, and that gave coaches more confidence to call blitz after blitz. Papuchis was pretty sure Nebraska brought pressure on five straight plays in one stretch.
Senior defensive back Ciante Evans thought Papuchis was signaling the plays in wrong.
“I thought it was supposed to be something else,” Evans said, “but he was like 'No, outside blitz.'”
If Northwestern was going to put only the five offensive linemen in front of the quarterback, leaving its skill players spread out wide or in the backfield — the Huskers were going to bring extra players off the edge. They knew quarterback Kain Colter liked to cut hard upfield and get vertical, so they forced him to the sideline as best they could.
“Our strength is our speed,” Papuchis said, “and we're going to use it.”
A similar strategy might be more difficult as Nebraska prepares to face teams that operate out of more pro-style offenses. Minnesota lined up in power formations and beat up the Huskers. Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa seem capable of replicating that blueprint.
Coach Bo Pelini acknowledged the challenges after the game. “Believe me,” he said, “there were a lot of mistakes in there.”
But Papuchis pointed out one positive for a young defense that's struggled to apply the coaches' strategies during games. They made the necessary adjustments Saturday.
Papuchis remembers seeing the Wildcats successfully run a simple zone read play out of an unconventional shotgun formation (the fullback lined up next to the quarterback, who had a running back behind him). They called the same play three times in a row, and gained 33 yards.
“All we had to do was equate it to something else for our guys to understand what they were doing,” Papuchis said. “They were just masking it and doing it a little bit differently than they showed in the past, and then we killed the play.”
Papuchis hopes they adjust faster next time, but he saw progress Saturday. The players recognized it, too. That's why they were so determined toward the end of the game. They didn't want to waste it.
“We were tired of talking about it,” Moss said. “We're like, 'We can't have this happen to us again. We have to go.'
“We refused. We did not want to lose at home. Everybody just bowed up and we did it.”
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Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska quarterback talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern:
Video: Nebraska wide receiver talks after Nebraska's win over Northwestern: