Senior staff writer
NU SENIOR FULLBACK JOELMAKOVICKA plows through the California defensive line duringNU's 24-3 victory over the Golden Bears. Makovicka led all rushers in the game with72 yards on the ground.
Husker performance doesn't impress Bears
BERKELEY, Calif. - A Nebraska defense that promoted itself as one of the best in the nationduring the preseason finally revealed the substance behind the hype Saturday.
The Blackshirts produced their best performance of the season in a 24-3 win over California at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, responding to critics who labeled the defense over-rated after it allowed Louisiana Tech 590 yards passing in the season opener.
No. 4 NU sacked Cal quarterback Justin Vedder a season-high six times. And the much-maligned secondary grabbed two interceptions - one each by Mike Brown and Carlos Polk - during the last three minutes of the game.
"When you put the responsibility on your shoulder of being one of the best defenses in the country, that's a lot of hype," NU left rush end Chad Kelsay said. "We have a lot ofnew guys on offense and people were expecting us to carry the team through the first few games. So when you start giving up a few too many yards here or there, people will freak out."
The Huskers (3-0) provoked many of the 67,397 fans - including about 30,000 red-clad spectators - to "freak out" with the game in doubt much of the second half.
The defense's defining moment came in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Nebraskaheld a 14-3 lead, but with Cal threatening to score on nearly every drive in the secondhalf, Kelsay said, the Huskers needed to gain some momentum. And the Bears (1-1) presented an opportunity.
CALIFORNIA DEFENSIVE BACK DELTHA O'NEAL steals the ball away from NU receiver MattDavis late in the first half. Cal had one interception, while Nebraska had two,both in the last three minutes of the game.
Cal regained possession after Kris Brown missed a 40-yard field goal attempt with 11 minutes and three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. A Vedder pass to Dameane Douglas from theBears' 23-yard line fell incomplete on Cal's first play of the series.
Vedder connected with White for 9 yards to set up third-and-one. But Cal failed to convert when Kelsay blasted through the line of scrimmage and stopped Mike Fields from rushing up the middle.
Nebraska did not allow California to reach NU territory the rest of the game.
"We faced plays like that all day today," Kelsay said of the third-down stop. "Those are the kinds of plays that we haven't been stopping so far this year, but things are startingto fall into place for us now.
"I think stopping them and holding them to points - especially after some of the things wehaven't done this season - is a big confidence booster for us."
NU Coach Frank Solich praised Nebraska's defense, which held the Bears to 236 yards.
"I thought there were a lot of opportunities for both teams to make something happen that could change the outcome of the game," Solich said. "Both defensive units played outstanding,and I think our defense was the difference in the game."
Vedder's second-longest pass of the day helped produce Cal's only score. Vedder - whocompleted 14 of 32 attempts for 224 yards and two scores - hit Douglas with a 40-yardstrike for a first down at the Nebraska 25. But the Bears could not take advantage, settling for a 38-yard field goal with 6:42 remaining in the third quarter.
The following series, third-string quarterback Monte Christo entered the game for the first time when a strained hamstring began to limit No. 2 quarterback Eric Crouch, whostarted in place of the injured Bobby Newcombe.
Christo, a fifth-year senior who has enjoyed little playing time throughout his career, completed 9 of 12 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
The Kearney native closed the door on Cal with 3:54 remaining in the game when he hit ShevinWiggins with a 5-yard touchdown pass that capped a 70-yard scoring drive and gave NU acommanding 21-3 lead.
NEBRASKA TIGHT END SHELDON JACKSON tries to avoid defenders after making his only catchof the day, a 31-yard reception from third-string quarterback Monte Christo.
"Eric played as hard as he could for as long as he could," Christo said. "I was ready. After all the things I have been through (with injuries), it was nice."
NU center Josh Heskew praised Christo and the Huskers' injury-riddled offense.
"We had a gut-check today coming into the fourth quarter at 14-3," Heskew said. "And I think we responded by coming down the field and putting it in our end zone."
The Huskers scored for the final time on a 41-yard field goal by Brown.
"We came out hard and initially put some points on the board," Solich said. "I thought itmight get to the point where we would move the ball well enough to have a chance to takeover the game. But Cal came back and played hard."
Nebraska struck on its first series of the game. Buckhalter rushed for 4 yards on a drawplay before Crouch ran up the left side of the field for 9 yards and a first down.
After runs of 18 and 6 yards by Joel Makovicka, Buckhalter took a pitch from Crouch 29 yards, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Crouch that capped a 67-yard scoring drive.Crouch scored again with 9:55 remaining in the second half on a 3-yard run.
"To me and the players, 3-0 sounds really good right now," Solich said. "We're banged up, there's no doubt about it. But the players responded well and this will provide us with depth and make us stronger in the weeks to come."
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