After Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne guided Nebraska football to five national championships and 21 conference titles between 1962 and 1997, the program faltered at the turn of the century. Since Osborne hung up the headset following the 1997 title, five Husker coaches have combined for no national championships, only one conference title in 1999, eight bowl wins and six losing seasons.
That’s not to say the Huskers haven’t come close to success a few times. The Bill Callahan era was mostly a disaster, but the Huskers did win the Big 12 North in 2006 behind the arm of quarterback Zac Taylor. The Huskers lost 21-7 against Oklahoma in the title game and 17-14 against Auburn in the Cotton Bowl to close the year and then went 5-7 in Callahan’s final year at the helm the next season.
Bo Pelini’s Huskers frequently beat teams that they were supposed to and got blown out by ones they weren’t, especially after the move to the Big Ten. However, Nebraska won at least nine games in each of Pelini’s seven seasons, and it won its division in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Each time, the Pelini-led Huskers couldn’t close the season on a high note — Nebraska lost in the conference championship game all three times.
That 2009 season is especially agonizing because the Huskers came extremely close to getting over the hump. The reason for this is simple: defense wins championships, and the 2009 Blackshirts were a championship defense.
It may not look like it at first glance — the Huskers did lose four games that season. However, the blame for each of those four losses falls on a pedestrian-at-best offense. NU ranked No. 75 in scoring offense that season, averaging 25.1 points a game. That figure alone isn’t spectacular, and it’s still a bit misleading.
NU played 14 games in 2009 and scored more than 20 points just seven times. Of those seven games, only two came against teams that finished with a winning record.
An even bigger indictment of the 2009 offense is that, if the Huskers didn’t put up massive numbers, they did next to nothing. Six times, the Huskers scored 17 points or fewer, including four games in which they scored under 15.
Meanwhile, the Blackshirts kept the Huskers in nearly every game. In eight games, the Huskers held opponents under 100 rushing yards. The only time the Huskers allowed more than 20 points was against Texas Tech, which dropped 31 on Oct. 17. Seven of those points came on a defensive score, meaning that the Blackshirts were so stout in 2009 that not a single opponent managed more than 24 offensive points. Only two — Colorado and Texas Tech — managed to score at least 20.
Even more impressively, the Blackshirts allowed 10 points or fewer in half of Nebraska’s 14 games. Even when the offense did next to nothing, the defense gave the Huskers a chance to win.
On Sept. 17 at No. 13 Virginia Tech, the Huskers held dynamic quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies to 16 points and 287 total yards, including just 86 rushing yards. However, Nebraska still lost because the offense turned it over twice and didn’t score a touchdown. Kicker Alex Henery nailed five field goals to account for all 15 points.
In a road game at Missouri on Oct. 8, the Blackshirts held Tigers quarterback Blaine Gabbert and company to 225 total yards and forced three turnovers. However, Nebraska still trailed by 12 after three quarters because the offense had fewer than 100 yards and no points. Thankfully, the offense finally roared to life in the fourth, scoring 27 points in the final frame for a 27-12 win.
The following week, Texas Tech scored 24 offensive points but managed only 259 yards and 25 rushing yards on 25 carries. However, that output was more than enough because the NU offense turned it over twice despite outgaining the Red Raiders with 285 total yards.
On Oct. 24, the Blackshirts held Iowa State to nine points and 239 total yards and still lost. The offense managed just seven points and turned the ball over an astounding eight times — three interceptions and five lost fumbles.
A week later against Baylor, the offense struggled again. Nebraska mustered 13 offensive points and 273 total yards with two turnovers, including a pick-six in the fourth quarter. However, the special teams and defense bailed out the offense. A first-quarter punt return touchdown put the Huskers on the board, and the Blackshirts held Baylor to three offensive points on 276 total yards and forced three turnovers in a 20-10 win.
The Husker offense was again useless against No. 20 Oklahoma on Nov. 7, mustering 10 points and a dismal 180 total yards. Stunningly, that was all the cushion the Blackshirts needed. Landry Jones and the Sooners averaged 31.1 points per game in 2009 but scored just three points against Nebraska. Additionally, the Blackshirts intercepted Jones five times, three from senior safety Matt O’Hanlon.
In a 17-3 win over Kansas State on Nov. 21, the NU offense managed 267 total yards, but the Blackshirts held the Wildcats to 293 yards, recovered one of three forced fumbles and intercepted a pass.
The Husker offense was once again anemic in the regular-season finale against three-win Colorado, mustering only 217 yards and 14 offensive points. However, defense and special teams bailed the offense out yet again in a 28-20 win with a punt return touchdown and a pick-six. Though the Blackshirts allowed an unusually high 403 yards of offense, they still forced three Colorado turnovers.
During the regular season, the Huskers won nine games despite recording fewer than 300 offensive yards five times. They also won a game in which they tallied fewer than 200 yards of offense. Furthermore, in all three regular-season losses, the Huskers outgained their opponents. However, they lost the turnover battle 12-0 in those three games.
All these examples of the defense saving the offense pale in comparison to the 2009 Blackshirts’ magnum opus — the Big 12 title game against Texas.
The unbeaten No. 3 Longhorns entered the game with a potent offense led by quarterback Colt McCoy. They averaged 39.3 points a game and had scored fewer than 30 points just once all season, in a 16-13 win against Oklahoma.
Texas fielded the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense and the No. 29 total offense, averaging 421.2 yards per game.
The Blackshirts absolutely stymied the Texas offense for all four quarters. McCoy and the Longhorns mustered just 202 total yards, over 200 yards below their season average of 421.2. McCoy threw for 184 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions, while the NU pass rush dominated the Texas offensive line to the tune of nine sacks.
Senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh terrorized Texas up front, notching 12 tackles, six tackles for lossand 4.5 sacks. In a game that served as a defensive masterclass for the Blackshirts, Suh nearly single-handedly won the Big 12 championship.
The key word there is “nearly.” The Nebraska offense, which finished the year ranked No. 99 out of 120 teams in total offense, turned in by far its worst performance of the season.
Even more than the 180 total yards against Oklahoma or the eight-turnover game in the Iowa State loss, the Big 12 title game served as a perfect microcosm of the Huskers’ season — a dominating defense single-handedly keeping the team in the game only for an inept offense to do its best to lose anyway.
Against Texas, the Nebraska offense managed 106 total yards for the entire game. Junior quarterback Zac Lee matched McCoy’s awful game with an even bigger clunker, going 6-of-19 (31.6% completion rate), with 39 yards and three interceptions.
Four Henery field goals were the only fruits of Nebraska’s torrid offensive performance, yet the Blackshirts befuddled the Texas offense so much it very nearly was enough to win the game anyway.
In the game’s final seconds, Suh beat his man and got to the quarterback one last time, forcing McCoy to heave the ball out of bounds as the clock expired — or so the Huskers thought. Officials ruled there was one second left, Texas kicked a field goal as time expired and the Huskers lost 13-12.
The Huskers blanked No. 22 Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl, a game that only served as a reminder of what could have been. NU’s offense finally woke up, dropping 33 points and 393 yards of offense.
Defensively, meanwhile, the Huskers held the Wildcats to 109 total yards, forced a fumble and recorded an O’Hanlon interception.
Over 10 years later, the takeaway from the 2009 season is that if the Husker offense was even mediocre, the Blackshirts were good enough to win a national championship. All told, they recorded 110 tackles for loss, 44 sacks, 88 pass breakups and quarterback hits, 20 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and six blocked kicks.
Suh anchored a dominant unit en route to becoming the second overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He finished the year with 85 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 26 quarterback hits, 10 pass breakups, an interception and forced fumble and three blocked kicks.
For Suh’s stellar season, he was one of four unanimous first-team All-Americans. Suh also dominated the awards season. He won the Bronco Nagurski Award for most outstanding defensive player, the Vince Lombardi Award for lineman of the year, the Chuck Bednarik Award for defensive player of the year and the John Outland Trophy for best interior lineman.
O’Hanlon led the team with six interceptions, while junior cornerback Prince Amukamara had five. Sophomore defensive end Jared Crick recorded 73 tackles with 15 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He also recovered two fumbles and blocked a kick.
The 2009 Blackshirts dominated opponents all season, keeping the Huskers in nearly every game despite a woeful offense. They were good enough to bring the Huskers within one second of winning the Big 12 title despite managing only 106 total yards.
Far too often, the offense laid an egg. In five of those games, the defense was good enough to overcome it. In four of those games, the offense was so bad that even Suh and the Blackshirts couldn’t will the Huskers to victory. In each of the Huskers’ four losses in 2009, the offense could not move the ball, could not hold onto the ball without turning it over, or couldn’t do either.
If the NU offense had just been mediocre instead of dismally inept in any of those four losses in 2009, the Blackshirts were plenty good enough to carry the Huskers to a title.