Answering the Call

LINCOLN — A loss at Minnesota and a touchdown deficit to Northwestern left a hell of a lot to prove. Considering how far down the depth chart the Cats had to reach to find a running back – fourth or fifth string I believe – giving up 152 rushing yards looked like it might be time to sweat the thought of bowl eligibility.

Nebraska had plenty to prove all year (and still does) after getting crushed by the one formidable team it played outside of a parade of cupcakes. I needed some proof before the most logical outlook was predicting a .500 season for the Huskers.

The halftime pep talks weren’t doing it for me, especially when they came against South Dakota State and Illinois. I’d heard too many players taking about “stepping up” and “taking charge” and every other tired cliche about powering through adversity.

Give me some proof.

“It started in the second quarter,” John Papuchis said hoarsely. “We pulled the whole defense together and just said ‘what are we gonna be?’ Because we had a great week of practice, our guys were excited about playing the game, and for whatever reason when we didn’t get off the field and we missed those tackles in the first series on third down, it seemed like the air came out of our guys.”

I’ve heard this before. Same story, different words. Missed tackles and bad execution, cue the sideline speech.

But this time, it worked. Finally, we got some proof.

All the pieces were there. The players communicated with coaches after correctly assessing the game and realizing Nebraska needed to play a four-man front. Seeing the problem was easy – Northwestern’s back got to the edge of the Nebraska defense with far too much ease. Making the adjustments and seeing the players (gulp) execute has been Nebraska’s biggest roadblock in 2012.

“Bo and JP kinda came in and they got out of coach mode,” Josh Banderas said. “They got real with us…they got personal.”

Papuchis asked the defense if “this” is who they are. If “this” was going to be their legacy, that when things go bad, they simply “roll over.”

Nebraska proceeded to force 10 punts and a pick-six by Avery Moss on the next 11 drives. When it looked like the Nebraska defense had broken irreparably on Northwestern’s final drive, the Cats were held to a field goal after making it to the two yard line.

“I always think teams reflect their coaches,” Papuchis said. “I know coach Bo gets a lot of criticism, a lot of scrutiny, but wha he is is a fighter, and I think our teams reflect that. People wonder why we come back a lot. That’s why.”

I’ll set aside perspective for another day (and for Brandon’s column) because today was an important day looking ahead to the rest of the Nebraska season. It may only be Northwestern, but a few defensive adjustments and some stepping up by players on defense turned the perception of Nebraska from “flirting with a bowl-less” season to “still alive in the division race.”

Even if it’s just for tonight, I saw some defensive proof that I’ve been waiting for all season.