With two minutes and 13 seconds showing on the game clock, a 10-10 tie on the scoreboard and the Nebraska defense about to take the field, running back Dedrick Mills stepped in front of the defensive backs.
“I feel one of y’all is about to get this pick right now,” he told them.
No one had turned the ball over to that point in the game, but Northwestern came in with 11 giveaways and eight takeaways. Nebraska had 10 takeaways and 14 giveaways. A turnover was likely to happen, and with the game in crunch time, whoever was able to produce the first one was likely going to win it.
“Coach [Erik] Chinander told us that in the fourth quarter, and as the clock kept ticking, he said the first team that gets a turnover is going to win the game and that was the position we were in,” said defensive tackle Darrion Daniels.
Lamar Jackson took Mills’ words to heart.
A bad throw? Maybe. There were two red jerseys there and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, the intended Northwestern receiver on the throw, wasn’t exactly close to being open.
Interference? Probably. But every team in every league at every level runs pick plays that don’t get called and every team in this league has benefitted from questionable whistles except for Nebraska (at least that’s what it seems like). While Pat Fitzgerald questioned the call on one side of Memorial Stadium Saturday night, Frost effectively shrugged his shoulders and said, “We were due a break,” on the other.
I’m not really interested in talking about why the interception shouldn’t have happened or been allowed to stand, though. I’m more interested in talking about the guy who made the play.
Jackson ran to the sideline after, found Mills, flexed and said, “You called this.”
“I literally told him he was finna [sic] get an interception before he did that, and he went out there and picked the ball for real,” Mills said, smiling from ear to ear. “You’ve got to call it before you see it and that’s what happened.”
Here’s a game hanging in the balance and Nebraska needs someone, anyone, to make a play.
Lamar Jackson makes the play.
Here’s a game that’s dangerously and uncomfortably similar in feel and narrative to last year’s. Nebraska’s offense can’t find the rythym it needs to put points on the board late and Northwestern gets a chance with two minutes on the clock to drive and score. Nebraska couldn’t get a stop then, letting the Wildcats drive 99 yards in eight plays. It just needed one play it didn’t get.
Lamar Jackson made the play this time.
The “perceived vs. real progress” discussion is an interesting one. There’s a side that argues Nebraska hasn’t made any progress where it counts. (Writing about it on a broader scale later this week). I would argue to simply close your eyes and point at a dude and you’ll find progress from where he was two years ago to where he is now.
There is no one that better exemplifies that than Jackson.
He’s coming up big for the Blackshirts this season. He doesn’t miss tackles the way he used to. He doesn’t shy from contact the way he used to. His 11 passes defensed ranks second nationally and only Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah has more interceptions amongst Big Ten defenders.
“When you're in a tight game, special teams and turnovers are the difference and I think that last pick we got probably was the play of the day,” head coach Scott Frost said.
Each time Jackson shows out, I think back to a conversation with Mohamed Barry in the spring. Jackson had just announced the birth of his son and I looked at Barry and simply said, “We’ve been wrong about this guy the entire time, haven’t we?”
“I texted him early on during winter conditioning about how proud I am of him, how mature he got through the years,” Barry answered back. “I’m always blunt with people and I tell them the truth. At first, there were complications with that. What made me respect him was how he handled the most adversity, which was losing his position for a minute and then coming back and how he was in practice the next week and how he embraced the culture instead of just looking at the culture and spitting on it and blaming the culture instead of blaming himself. He got better.”
Whether that’s because of Legacy at home, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher in his ear every day at the office, something behind the scenes or all of the above I really don’t know. But what I do know is Jackson has become a shining example of what this defense, this staff and this mindset can do for a player.
Buy in. Go out onto the field each and every day with a desire to excel and no fear of failure. Good things will happen because of it.
Jackson didn’t snag that interception through extraordinarily acrobatic means. He didn’t jump a route or bait a throw or make a diving snag. He was just in the right place at the right time. But even that wasn’t always the case.
“It’s a blessing,” Jackson said. “I know what I’m supposed to do. I had to make that play for the team.”
The growth here being that he didn’t just know he needed to do it but like Mills—who has only known this version of Jackson—predicted, Jackson went out and did it.
Something to Watch Going Forward
A third-down sub-package for the Huskers Saturday on defense was pulling a linebacker off the field, putting redshirt freshman corner Braxton Clark at corner, sliding Dicaprio Bootle down to the slot and inserting Eli Sullivan at safety.
On two different third-downs, one in the first and one in the second quarter, Clark got involved in drive-ending tackles. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder had a strong offseason but hasn’t seen much work outside of special teams to this point in the regular season.
Maybe that changes going forward. Bootle said after the game he was fine over at slot. Even if he’s not seeing a huge role going forward, providing a contribution to the defense puts him right there with Cam Taylor-Britt and Caleb Tannor as guys from that first Scott Frost recruiting class to fill roles early.
(Tannor is another name to watch going forward. He’s starting to look pretty good. And he can work in coverage.)
The Huskers were fine starting football games early on this season. They had point-producing drives to open games in each of the first three weeks. That has all but disappeared these last three weeks. Nebraska opened against Illinois with a seven-play, 51-yard drive that ended with a turnover on downs. Ohio State gave up a six-play, 31-yard drive to open but forced an interception. Nebraska went three-and-out Saturday.
So that’s a troubling trend.
The other one is the Huskers’ inability to either carry over or build momentum to begin second halves. The Huskers have yet to score a point on the opening possession of a second half all season. Thirty plays have been run in six games. 73 yards have been gained. Meaning the average drive is five plays and 12 yards.
(They’ve technically gained 83 yards, but a holding penalty cuts it down. Even still, 2.8 yards a play isn’t some big improvement over 2.4.)
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.