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Yeah, Eric Lee Jr. thought about getting off the bus.
For a fifth-year senior on his second coaching staff playing a new position, at times over the last few years the idea of packing up and restarting somewhere else has come and gone. Lee played at corner — he started the first half of 2017 and played nine more in 2018 — but the success hasn’t come. While he’s been around the team, the Blackshirts haven’t been what they’re supposed to be. The secondary has been a punching bag. But Lee stuck it out, a rarity in today’s game, and in the first game of his senior year, he grabbed his first two career interceptions.
He brought one of them back for a touchdown, likely the play of the game. His dad, who spent the last few years telling him to stay, was in tears when Lee called him after the game. “Just saying how proud he was of me,” Lee said. “Just being able to keep working, keep working.”
Nebraska’s defense is on a revenge tour in 2019. It’s not anger directed at Northwestern for an overtime comeback or Iowa for a game-winning field goal (though there’s probably some of that anyway). It’s an exorcising of demons. Nebraska’s defense doesn’t feel it has to prove something to Colorado, it feels like it has to prove something to itself.
“If anything,” Lee said. “We’re looking to prove each other wrong.”
Five turnovers forced Saturday represented a high-water mark for the Blackshirts dating back to Sept. 10, 2016. They produced nine tackles for loss (five sacks) and two defensive touchdowns. The defensive side of the ball matched the offense’s point total on the day. The Scott Frost-Adrian Martinez pairing was expected to be the driving force of a division title run in 2019; instead it was the Blackshirts who carried No. 24 Nebraska to a 35-21 season-opening win over South Alabama.
The offense sputtered to 14 points and 4.2 yards per play. The ground game struggled to create anything of substance between the tackles. (Maurice Washington’s 39 yards on six carries were a byproduct of him creating space outside where there was none to begin with.)
“The defense won the game for us,” Frost said after. “The defense I’ve been seeing all fall camp showed up today.”
That’s a defense that acts nasty, one that fought with the offense during the offseason. Literally. “Coach comes in and says, ‘We’re going live,’ and when we go live, in the back of my head I’m thinking either I’m going to have to break something up or I’m going to have to start something,” said senior defensive tackle Darrion Daniels.
That’s a defense that flies to the football. Because Nebraska flew to the football. The linebackers (all of them) were everywhere. Mohamed Barry had 12 total tackles. JoJo Domann emerged off the bench in the second half and immediately made plays both in the backfield and in coverage.
“We showed the world what’s up with the defense tonight,” said senior corner Lamar Jackson. “It’s really just the cash-in. When you put the work in, when you grind all summer, when you bleed and sweat with your brothers, when you have performances like this, this is the reward. This is just like the icing on the cake. This is what we work for each and every day. Today we showed up and I can’t be more happy.”
Jackson wasn’t physical enough his first two-and-a-half years in Lincoln. Wasn’t in the right spots. Wasn’t able to make the plays when they presented themselves. There’s some truth in there, which has probably always hurt an immensely prideful and equally talented corner.
The first turnover of 2019, however, was a fumble forced by Jackson. He came screaming off the edge on a corner blitz and wasn’t touched. Jaguar quarterback Cephus Johnson never saw him. Jackson put him in the dirt.
Cam Taylor-Britt, the sophomore defensive back who was named a co-starter along with Jackson for Week 1, got himself an interception early in the fourth quarter and returned it to midfield. Jackson lost his mind over that one, maybe even more so than for his own game-changing play.
“We’ve been preparing all camp, all summer,” he said. “This is the closest group I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here when it comes to the secondary. We’re out there, high communication, we’re playing for one another, so at the end of the day it’s not about us. I didn’t do too much but I was super proud of everybody else with the picks and everything they did. It was tremendous.”
Before the game, defensive back Tony Butler tweeted the Revenge Tour had begun. The Huskers showed up in all black. Mentally, at least on defense, this seems a team on a mission to make some amends.
South Alabama was in the game Saturday because the Husker offense kept them in it. The first score came after a three-and-out that started the Jags on Nebraska’s 41-yard-line. The second score came off a JD Spielman muffed punt on the 13. The last score came off Martinez’s only interception of the day.
The defense kept South Alabama from threatening.
“I don’t know about pressure but there was a lot of emphasis on the defense having to step up,” Domann said. “We rose to the occasion. We fell back on our preparation.”
He said the play in camp translated to the game. That you reap what you sow, and the Blackshirts have tasted a little sweetness after months and months of working toward showing they’re not just going to ride the offense’s coattail to wins.
“We’ve got a lot to prove, man,” Domann said. “High expectations for us and we embrace that. We came here to make things happen, to win a championship, to win a Big Ten championship. I plan on fulfilling that destiny while I’m here. The revenge tour is just our attitude toward this season.”
Next week brings a trip to hated Colorado. The team Frost loathed as a player and the team that got under everyone’s skin last year. The Buffs won 33-28 last season, but Martinez was knocked out of the game late.
Daniels has a tie to the game even though he’s a new guy. An old teammate playing on the offensive line for Colorado — Arlington Hambright, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State, same as Daniels.
“I’m really excited to go rattle him like I used to do,” Daniels said. “But I know it means a lot more to this team, so it would mean a lot to me to just be able to return a favor. Y’know, revenge tour has started. It’s time to go seek it.”
Lee has an extra tie, too. He played high school ball in Colorado. Family will be there.
“I had last year’s game circled on my schedule and I have this year’s game circled on my schedule,” Lee said.
Stop No. 2 on the tour.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.