The Blackshirts had a strong bounce-back game Saturday against Northwestern, allowing just 10 points and making crucial plays down the stretch.
The biggest defensive play of the game came on the Wildcats’ final drive, when senior cornerback Lamar Jackson intercepted a pass to stop Northwestern’s momentum and set up Nebraska’s game-winning drive.
The Blackshirts have excelled at forcing turnovers this year, but a turnover in a big moment was especially important, according to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
“Getting a turnover when things matter, that’s a huge play in the growth of a team and a defense to make a big play when it really matters, not just make one when you’re up 43-8 or whatever,” he said. “There was a lot of growth within the unit and a lot of growth within the team.”
The pass came straight into Jackson’s hands, which he said he was surprised by; however, he was waiting for an easy opportunity like that.
“That’s a blessing,” Jackson said at Tuesday’s press conference. “That was one of them one’s where you just sit in your hotel room, you just talk to your roommate just like ‘I hope they bless me with one, I want one, I just want something to fall in my hands,’ believe it or not I’ve been asking for something like that for two weeks.”
Jackson has had a successful season thus far, ranking top five in the NCAA in passes defended with nine. He’s also racked up 18 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble.
However, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher kept it short when asked about Jackson’s success, focusing on the fact that he could do even more.
“Top five is not number one,” Fisher said. “So he’s got a ways to go.”
That mentality is prevalent across the entire defense. The Blackshirts have seen great improvement from last season and throughout the season, but the message that is stressed most is that their growth is not over yet.
Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry was vocal about the progression of the defense, praising their ability to correct mistakes and expressing confidence in the future of the unit.
“I think we really learn from our mistakes and we are progressing,” Barry said. “We’re still not where we want to be, we know we could grow more as a defense. But if we continue to progress, when it’s that time where we have to be at our maximum, we will be there.”
Jackson echoed Barry’s message, saying “the sky’s the limit” for how good the defense can get.
If Nebraska wins this upcoming weekend, it will go into the bye week with a 5-2 record. The Huskers haven’t had a five-win season since 2016, so surpassing that mark seven games into the year would be a big step.
“It’s going to be a tremendous thing to get to five wins,” Barry said. “I know no one wants to hear that, and say ‘Nebraska’s only excited to win five games’ but to be honest, it’s been a long time so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Hitting that mark this weekend will be no easy feat. Minnesota has yet to lose this season, and the Huskers have struggled on the road under head coach Scott Frost. Nebraska picked up its first win of the Frost era against the Golden Gophers last year, winning 53-28.
Regardless, Minnesota looks like a much better team now than it did a year ago, and has plenty of offensive talent. Senior running back Rodney Smith currently ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 536 yards.
On top of that, the Gophers boast a talented group of receivers. Sophomore Rashod Bateman and senior Tyler Johnson rank in the top ten in the conference in receiving yards, and have combined for 887 yards and nine touchdowns so far this year.
“They have a good crew, they have a guy in Bateman that can [get] a lot of yards after [the] catch, and a lot of yards per catch,” Chinander said. “Johnson can go over the middle and they have a nice complementary offense and they do a nice job of getting those guys in position to make catches.”
Despite the tough task ahead of them, the Blackshirts are ready to travel to Minnesota and come back with a big win.
“This is a team that’s undefeated, at the end of the day this is also a team that’s on our side of the conference so of course it’s a big game, it’s a huge game,” Jackson said. “I mean if we get this one going into the bye week it’ll be tremendous for the group, for the team, for everything, so we want this one bad.”