Nebraska vs. Fordham Photo No. 8

Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez (2) passes the ball during the game against Fordham at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Coming off a 30-22 loss to Illinois, Nebraska returned home to a crowded Memorial Stadium for the first time in nearly two years. The return to the “Sea of Red” was a sight that players and coaches alike had long been waiting for.

“The crowd was great,” sophomore running back Markese Stepp said postgame. “There’s no fans like people here. I haven’t seen a fan base like this ever. We barely had about 40 people on a regular basis...It was pretty fun to run it.”

The atmosphere, according to Stepp, was a massive contrast to his days at the University of Southern California. The Huskers were playing in front of a raucous crowd but their opponent, the Fordham Rams of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), quickly sapped the crowd’s energy with a stop on Nebraska’s first drive.

The Huskers then struck, using junior tight end Austin Allen on consecutive plays to move the chains. A fourth-and-two from the Fordham 6-yard line saw junior quarterback Adrian Martinez barrel into the endzone for a 7-0 lead.

Other than that touchdown drive, Fordham’s defense frustrated the Huskers early on. In particular, Fordham senior linebacker Ryan Greenhagen was all over the field, and limited the Huskers ground game. Greenhagen finished with 30 tackles, tying a FCS game-record high for any defensive player and earned a shocked response from senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann postgame after he heard the statline.

“30? Respect.” Domann said postgame .

Greenhagen’s performance helped keep the Husker offense at bay, and the Rams eventually capitalized by putting up a nice touchdown drive off a 31-yard touchdown run and catch from senior wide receiver Fotis Kokosioulis. The Huskers responded with a field goal but the Rams were driving once again.

On fourth-and-four in the second quarter, the Rams trotted out junior kicker Nick Leinenweber for a 46-yard field goal attempt. The snap appeared good, but senior safety Marquel Dismuke arrived around the corner quickly as his facemask met Leinenweber’s field goal attempt.

Leinenweber recovered his own kick but failed to make anything of it, throwing the ball to senior defensive lineman Anthony Diodato, who proceeded to go nowhere. The Husker special teams had just arrived to make its first positive marquee play of the season.

After that blocked field goal, Fordham’s energy was seamlessly done. Starting at its own 31-yard line, Nebraska went on a  nine-play touchdown drive that took 3:44 off the clock to take a 17-7 lead. 

Stepp had five carries on that drive, his most on any drive so far this season. Stepp’s 31 rushing yards on the drive included converting a third-and-one at the Ram 29-yard line, before his next run went for 14 yards to Fordham’s 7-yard line.

Martinez put the exclamation point on the drive, taking a four-yard scamper to the left for a touchdown after a Rams defensive breakdown. Up ten, the Husker defense was back on the field.

 Like previous Ram drives, Fordham senior quarterback Tim DeMorat continued to slice the Huskers defense. DeMorat first hit senior wide receiver Hamze El-Zayat on the drive’s first two plays to get to Nebraska’s 39 yard-line.

Once again, the Rams were threatening to score within Husker territory. Up to that point, the Husker secondary did not have many answers for the Rams’ aerial attack.  DeMorat’s first interception came off the hands of senior wide receiver Fotis Kokosioulis and into Domann’s hands but that did little to slow down DeMorat.

Then, all of a sudden, Nebraska’s secondary found an answer.

“I am not going to lie, they had a great scheme at first,” senior safety Deontai Williams said at his postgame press conference. “Then we caught on and then we had to shut it down.”

DeMorat and the Rams’ receiving corps were up to the challenge and faced a third and nine at the Husker 38-yard line. DeMorat made a desperate throw to the right side, where Williams proceeded to pick off the ball with 2:27 left in the first half.

Once again, Nebraska had the ball after forcing an error. At its own 17-yard line, Nebraska ran the two-minute drill to near perfection. This time, a different transfer took over the drive, with senior wide receiver Samori Toure taking the spotlight.

“I think that drive going into halftime, we connected on a couple corner routes and it is just like it was in practice,” Toure said postgame . “I think that is just our chemistry and our practice coming to fruition.”

Toure’s two catches for 53 yards on that drive set up Nebraska within Fordham’s 30-yard line. Toure finished with eight catches on 133 yards, marking Nebraska’s best receiving performance in yards since J.D. Spielman against Illinois 2019, but the Montana transfer didn’t find a touchdown through the air.

A Martinez pass to Allen and a subsequent Martinez run had Nebraska knocking on the goalinen yet again. There, freshman running back Sevion Morrison punched in from close range to take a 24-7 lead with only 29 seconds left in the first half.

In a span of three minutes, Nebraska went from catastrophe to taking a comfortable halftime lead.

“We talked about that as a team, trying to finish the second, start the third the right way,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “We did the exact opposite of that last week. ”

The Huskers faced one last obstacle en route to their eventual drubbing of the Rams with a muffed punt by junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. The muffed punt came after the Rams punt bounced into Taylor-Britt’s hands, where he could not get a solid grip on the ball.

Fordham, after going three-and-out on its first third quarter drive, now had the ball at Nebraska’s 35-yard line. It marked Nebraska’s first turnover of the afternoon, and the Rams could cash in on Nebraska’s generous gift. However, the Rams did very little.

“It felt similar or felt like a similar situation,” Domann said postgame. “We are defenders...We are put in an unfortunate situation, we are going to go up and get the job done. Those are the type of moments you live for as a defender.”

Domann played a vital role, shutting down a third-and-eight play that could have made the Rams’ fourth down attempt more manageable. Instead, the Rams went stagnant as Williams notched his second interception on the Rams’ fourth down attempt.

With the ball, Nebraska continued its high-tempo play from the first half to great success. Stepp came back in with seven carries on the nine play drive, gaining 43 yards including a big 19-yard run to kick off the drive.

Stepp finished with 101 rushing yards on 18 carries, looking the best in Nebraska’s crowded running back group on Saturday. Still, Stepp did not score on the first third quarter drive as Martinez found junior tight end Chancellor Brewington for a two-yard touchdown score.

After forcing another Fordham three-and-out, the Husker offense put up its fourth straight touchdown drive. Every touchdown drive during the run took less than four minutes, as Nebraska took a 38-7 lead.

Up 31 in the third quarter, Nebraska took the majority of its starters out of the game. The rest of the game took a life of its own, with freshman quarterback Logan Smothers coming in for the rest.

Smothers led two more touchdown drives in the final two quarters to seal a 52-7 win. By that time, the atmosphere still remained most intact as 85,000 fans stayed for the entirety of a blowout.

“I said before the game, this is a program game,” Domann said. “We get to show what we are made of as a program from the top down.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com