After countless close calls through the first few weeks of the season, Nebraska’s defense is finally starting to force turnovers. After recording just three takeaways through the first four weeks of the season, the Blackshirts have 10 in the last five games — six interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
That change started in practice.
“They’re taking those drills seriously,“ defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “You watch the film of those turnover drills at the beginning of the year and it looks like the Bad News Bears out there running around. Now it looks like a real football team, guys are trying to get the football. You can see they’re more ball-aware in team settings, they’re more ball-aware in individual settings and obviously they’re becoming more ball aware in the games, which is good.”
One of the players who is helping to create those turnovers is junior cornerback Lamar Jackson. Through his first two seasons and 24 games, Jackson had broken up just three passes and did not have a single interception. This season, he has five pass break-ups, two picks and a forced fumble and has been playing the best football of his career since bouncing back from a midseason benching.
“I just feel like I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with everything,” Jackson said. “I’m comfortable with the scheme, I’m comfortable with the coaches, I’m comfortable with my teammates. We’re out there trusting each other, the communication is high, so it’s making everything a lot easier. So now I’m just out there and I’m going for the good stuff — the turnovers, the picks, all the good stuff. We’re trying to flip the field and get the ball back to our offense any way possible, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s the mindset in the back end for sure — anything in the air, we’ve got the mindset to come down with it.”
Jackson came down with one against Ohio State last Saturday, and it was a big one as it took away a scoring opportunity for the Buckeyes. Nebraska led 21-16 in the third quarter but the Buckeyes had crossed into the red zone and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins took a shot into the end zone. Jackson was the one who came down with the ball, however.
“Just keys and reaction,” Jackson said. “We were in a box tool. I really just did my job on the play. I had my eye on the quarterback the whole time, peeking as I’m exiting out of the play. I had my eyes on him and once he threw it I had to go get it. I saw it coming so I just made a great play on the ball.”
That wasn’t the only big play Jackson made last Saturday. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound corner has had his fair share of lowlights when it comes to hitting and tackling in his career, but he put that behind him and made a big hit against the Buckeyes, popping the ball out as he took the ball-carrier to the ground. It was his first career forced fumble.
“That’s another one that I’m just thankful for,” Jackson said. “I was in the right place at the right time, made a good tackle and the ball came out. Unfortunately we weren’t able to recover it but I got it out so that still goes in the stat sheet and whatever else.”
The ball ended up bouncing out of bounds before the Huskers could secure it, and Jackson said he gave safety Antonio Reed a hard time for that.
“Reed, he hit the ball the opposite way,” Jackson said. “All he had to do was hit it the opposite way into the field rather than into the sideline. We gave him a hard time but we’re going to get some more out this week hopefully.”
That is the mindset the defense is starting to play with. They’re not happy with near-misses any more like they might have been earlier in the season.
“When we go to the sideline for timeouts and stuff like that, we’re harping on the turnovers,” Jackson said. “‘C’mon, we’re getting them out, let’s get them.’ Coach is always pushing us to do a little bit more. Just getting the ball on the ground’s not enough; we need the ball out and we need to recover the ball. We’re trying to do all that.”
On Saturday, the Huskers will see a familiar face across the line of scrimmage as former Husker AJ Bush is starting at quarterback for the Illini. Illinois is one of the best rushing teams in the country and Bush is a big part of that, but when he does drop back to pass he is completing just under 57 percent of his passes and has five interceptions to five touchdowns this season.
“I know he was here for my freshman year, but we got close while I was here and I got to know him as a person,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be fun. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick him off because I know he’s going to give me the chance … I know he’s going to throw the ball deep for sure, regardless.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.