OK, look, nobody’s pretending that Southern Mississippi isn’t a team that has now lost 14 straight games. The Golden Eagles aren’t very good and Nebraska needed to beat this team 56-13 just to get back to even after last week’s defensive debacle.
But it’s who did it for Nebraska that’s worth noting here.
The Huskers two starting linebackers in this game were Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. Two true freshmen that, 366 days ago, were playing high school football, not in Texas or California or some other football hot bed, but in South Dakota and Nebraska. It’s a big jump.
Less so for defensive end Randy Gregory who came to Nebraska with sky-high expectations as one of the most hotly recruited junior college prospects in the country last year. He made his first start too on Saturday and looked like the player many thought he’d be. That’s a big jump in its own way. One not many make in Bo Pelini’s complex, communication-heavy defense.
And that was the key difference for Nebraska on Saturday. The communication was better. That was unexpected.
Banderas, perhaps too colorfully, said he kind of “dropped a load in his pants” when he learned he’d be starting on Saturday over David Santos, the only linebacker the Huskers had back from the 2012 squad. Luckily for Nebraska, Banderas’ play wasn’t as ugly as his initial reaction earlier this week.
“(Banderas) took control of that Mike linebacker spot,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans said. “Being a middle linebacker isn’t easy. He was the voice of command today. He was putting guys in the right position, giving guys the play. I think he did a phenomenal job today.”
It would be easy to overlook the contribution of Nebraska’s two freshmen in the middle just by glimpsing at the stat sheet. Banderas had three solo tackles and a pass break-up. Gerry had two solos and an assist. Neither is anything that will earn any mention outside of Nebraska circles, but the difference from week one to two was huge.
It was less storm, more calm before the snap and it made a difference elsewhere.
Evans looked like the All-Big Ten player he should’ve been last year, grabbing two interceptions and returning one for a touchdown. Stanley Jean-Baptiste nabbed another interception in this game, his second on the season, and has been the Huskers best defender through two games this season.
Nebraska gave up some completions, including a total bust in the third quarter that led to a 41-yard touchdown, but overall this looked like the strength of the team, just like it should.
Part of that was simple communication. Part of it was the versatility of Gerry, who allowed Nebraska to play a lot more nickel package in game two without giving up a ton of run support.
And part of it was the other newcomer, Gregory, up front.
The sophomore consistently pressured Southern Miss quarterback Allan Bridgford into hurried throws and looked every bit the dynamic pass rusher Nebraska was hoping he’d be. While Gregory is still looking for his first sack after having one nullified by penalty last week, you couldn’t miss him on Saturday thanks to four quarterback hurries.
“He’s a very instinctive kid and he’s an instinctive football player who understands a lot of things about the game,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “We’re not real big into the juco front, as far as bringing in the junior college guys, so we really do our homework and really find the ones we feel are right for us. We’re pretty selective in that area and we’ve been pretty fortunate in doing that. He was the only guy we targeted, and we saw a great pass-rusher at the junior college ranks.”
The list of guys who have come in and contributed right away on defense under Pelini is short. If you started and ended it with Lavonte David, I wouldn’t argue too loudly and that may never have happened if the Huskers’ linebacking crew in 2010 hadn’t been decimated during fall camp. It’s never been an easy defense to crack, particularly up front.
Nebraska fans wanted to see change on defense after the Huskers were humiliated their last three times out and Pelini made an uncommon change. He went young.
It worked this time. Against Southern Miss.
The strength of the opponent rightfully colors every interpretation of this game, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a change. And in a week where every possible option for change was exhausted before Wyoming even made it back to Laramie, this one still felt unexpected.
“The younger guys wanted to learn more and do more (this week),” Evans said. “They had their first playing time last week against Wyoming. They wanted to pick up the slack and not be considered young any more.
“You can’t really consider them young because they play a lot now.”
That looked like the case against Southern Miss. It will have to be the case next Saturday against a much stronger, faster, and savvier UCLA squad coming off a bye week.
But there’s hope. Hope that wasn’t there a week ago.