PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The term "Blackshirt" carries a certain weight in Nebraska.
You’re not just a defensive back; you’re a blackshirt. You’re not just a defensive lineman; you’re a blackshirt.
It’s an identity, a culture and a standard.
Only, it hadn’t been well-represented in 2015.
Just a few weeks into the season, Nebraska’s pass defense sat dead last among all FBS programs. The Huskers gave up 36 points in Miami. 28 against Southern Miss. 30 against Northwestern.
Heck, just two weeks ago, they gave up 55 to Purdue.
But now, after silencing Rutgers 31-14 a week after getting the vital stops in a gargantuan upset of Michigan State, the mood’s a bit different. Now 5-6 and a win against Iowa away from Houdini-ing their way into bowl eligibility, the Huskers’ confidence seems ever-growing.
And it’s got a heck of a lot to do with the Blackshirts earning some of that swagger back.
Saturday night was NU’s best defensive performance for the season. On top of a season-high six sacks, Nebraska held Rutgers to 259 total yards, and just 3.9 per play. A season-high 11 tackles for loss went for 51 total yards. The Huskers forced a couple of turnovers, and the only points NU gave up came after a pair interceptions set Rutgers up from six and 35 yards out.
It was all about the ferocious pressure in the backfield each and every play.
But this week, what was so different?
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said with a smile. “We’ll see on film. We had ideas, and we knew how the protection would work.”
Yet, it went much further than preparation.
“Really, for the most part, we were just (rushing) four guys,” Banker said. “We weren’t bringing five. We brought four guys, and in some cases, we weren’t even playing man coverage. We were playing zone.”
Whatever it was at work was pretty obvious, and Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano never seemed comfortable. Hurried out of the pocked play after play, he completed just 13 of 27 throws for 165 yards and a pair of interceptions.
“I think the (defensive) coaches did a real night job in terms of a game plan,” coach Mike Riley said. “I thought with how we set it up we were able to get good pressure. We stayed pretty consistent with playing good defense right to the very end.”
Rutgers, which scored 55 points in a win against Indiana in mid-October, had just 33 in three blowout losses since. The situation favored resurgent Nebraska, but needing to avoid a Purdue-esque let down at all costs, the defense had to lock in.
“They’re really a running team,” linebacker Josh Banderas said. “They really wanted to run the ball in those big packages. But we knew that, and we knew we had to shut it down.”
At a certain point, players couldn’t even keep track of what they were accomplishing.
“How many sacks did we have?” Banderas chuckled. “My goodness — They were having fun out there. It was that 30-front package Rutgers was having a really hard time handling. (The defensive line) was really getting after it.”
And that constant pressure was a huge help to the NU secondary, which knew it’d have its hands full with Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo. Carroo, a first-team all-Big Ten selection in 2014, and a highly-touted NFL Draft prospect, had nine touchdowns in five quarters coming in.
But because Laviano couldn’t get comfortable, Carroo’s four catch, 62-yard performance was trivial.
“Since Monday, (receivers coach Keith Williams) was saying, ‘Don’t let (Carroo) ruin this game for us,’” defensive back Chris Jones said. “It’s a big step for this secondary to come in and be able to stop a guy like that.”
Riley was a bit modest, but was still happy with the overall product.
“I thought our guys did a decent job covering Carroo,” he said. “I think that was good. And then the other guys they had didn’t really hurt us. It was a good plan.”
Now, approaching the end of what’s been a whirlwind year, Nebraska feels it might be putting all of this together. Last week’s upset relieved some serious pressure, and with a chance to end the year by beating another College Football Playoff contender, the outlook for Riley’s next few seasons doesn’t seem as bleak.
“Week by week, I think guys are starting to get more confident,” safety Nate Gerry said. “They’re picking up smaller details inside the schemes, and they’re just trusting each other.”
It’s also a sign this group’s come quite a ways from where it started, and with key players now healthy, that’s been a huge help.
“(Saturday) shows our progress,” Banderas said. “Even last week, in the final 17 seconds of the game, we were able to finish. I think it just shows our progress and that we’re cleaning up the things we need to clean up. We’ve got a bye week and then Iowa, so hopefully we can polish up a lot.”
And now, no matter Iowa’s record, NU’s got everything to play for.
Just a couple weeks ago, that seemed like way too much to ask.