Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

After ‘Punch In The Mouth,’ Nebraska Defense Never Backed Down From Oklahoma Offense

September 18, 2021

JoJo Domann wished he would’ve come down with one of those risky Spencer Rattler throws into tight coverage Saturday. But he didn’t, and Rattler and the Oklahoma Sooners escaped Nebraska’s upset bid with a 23-16 win at home in Norman.

That almost interception was a play that Domann wants back. So were some of the third down plays, an area of the game that the Sooners were 6-of-11 in converting. Having a mobile quarterback like Rattler, a Heisman Trophy candidate, helps an offense on third down.

“They had a good quarterback who was good at extending the play, and the receivers knew that and they did a great job of wiggling around,” Domann said after the game. “We have to plaster our coverage, and if we could’ve just got off the field on a couple more of those third downs, that would’ve been big time.”

But while there were things the Husker defense would like back, Domann, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles, and the Husker defense was what kept Nebraska in the game. It didn’t look like that was going to be the case in the first quarter, though. The Sooners’ opening drive of the game was a massive 14-play, 75-yard march that chewed 6 minutes and 58 seconds off the clock and resulted in a touchdown.

Yes, the Blackshirts were punched in the mouth to start the game. But it’s how they responded that will be remembered.

“Those guys are heavyweight fighters, and when they punch you they expect you to be knocked out. And we just kept getting up,” Domann said. “We were down but we were never out, down to the last drive. We spotted them nine points and we lost by seven.”

Oklahoma, with an offense that averaged 43, 42.1, 48.4 and 45.1 points per game since head coach Lincoln Riley took over in 2017, managed just three touchdowns and 23 points against Nebraska. Sure, Riley’s team had one of those game-defining opening drives that found the end zone. Except this time, it didn’t define anything.

Nebraska’s defense just wanted to withstand that first wave against one of the top offenses in the country.

“When they marched down the field and took up half the quarter, that was that first punch,” Domann said. “Then we buckled down on defense and the offense got three points out of the half. So we went into the half right where we wanted to be, this was a game for the taking.”

Nebraska forced the Sooners to punt on four of their nine drives in the game. The Huskers were on the field for 30 minutes, 50 seconds and had to go back on the field after three momentum-shifting plays the Sooners’ way—two missed field goals and a blocked extra point that was returned 100 yards for 2 points.

Linebacker Luke Reimer, who had seven tackles, said the defense is always preaching to put out the fire when one starts. There was plenty to put out on Saturday, but Erik Chinander’s crew still held Oklahoma to its lowest yardage total—408—of the season.

“I think we did an OK job of that today after some fast changes and momentum swings here and there,” Reimer said. “But we always have to get better at that.”

One of the players that put out a fire was defensive lineman Ben Stille, whose stop on a third-down shovel pass late in the fourth quarter forced Oklahoma to punt the ball away, giving the Husker offense a chance to tie or even win the game with a touchdown. While the defensive performance seemed good on the outside, Stille knows it could’ve been better.

“I think we played well, not to our standard though,” Stille said. “We needed to play great and we knew we needed to play great to win this game defensively. Really frustrated we couldn’t get that done. We played good, but not up to our standard. Especially for who we have on defense, we know what we’re capable of.”

The Husker defense will be faced with another strong test next Saturday in East Lansing. Head coach Mel Tucker’s Michigan State Spartans are 3-0 after knocking off Miami 38-17 on the road. Through three games, the Spartans are averaging 39 points and 520 total yards.

After limiting an explosive offense like the one in Norman, what’s next for Nebraska’s defense?

“We’re going to build on this,” Domann said. “We’re not looking at taking any steps back.”

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