Tempe, Ariz. - Perhaps the best testimonial on behalf of the 1999 Nebraska defense comes directly from the Blackshirts.
When pressed Wednesday to identify their top traits as a group and most influential members, the first-team NU defenders offered a smorgasbord of responses. Carlos Polk raved about Steve Warren. Aaron Wills labeled Mike Brown and Carlos Polk as "amazing." Brown deflected praise toward Keyuo Craver and Ralph Brown. Eric Johnson talked about the depth and closeness of the defensive unit.
"I think that says something right there, the way they feel around each other," Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. "There is something you cannot teach about defense. They have it."
With 12 games down and one to go Sunday at 7:20 p.m. against Tennessee in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the latest version of the Blackshirts ranks among the best groups in school history, McBride said. Statistics show they belong in such a category. But according to the coach and his troops, the legacy of this defense encompasses much more than numbers.
"When we come out of this game, we'll be able to say if we're the best defense in the nation or the best defense at Nebraska," said Johnson, the starting weakside linebacker who splits time with fellow senior Julius Jackson. "I can say we're the closest defense in the nation. Everybody put aside their own selfishness to win games.
"That's hard to do in college football. We all dedicated ourselves to Coach McBride and the staff here at Nebraska."
The Huskers' dedication showed throughout the year. Nebraska ranks among the nation's top six in scoring, passing-efficiency, rushing and total defense, a feat matched only in NU history by the 1967 and '84 squads and this year by Virginia Tech and Mississippi State.
Nebraska led the Big 12 Conference and set a school record with 53 quarterback sacks.
The first-team defenders allowed just four rushing touchdowns and themselves scored 40 points. NU shut out a pair of foes and held two others without offensive points. The Huskers held every opponent to fewer than 75 rushing yards in the first half, and only six rushing plays accounted for 25 yards or more against Nebraska this year.
"I'm not going to toot my own horn until it's all over," said Wills, a senior rush end. "But just seeing some of what those guys do, it's unbelievable. We've got guys every single day, even in practice, who do things that amaze me."
Seniors Mike Brown, a rover from Scottsdale, Ariz., and Ralph Brown, a cornerback from Hacienda Heights, Calif., earned various All-America awards. Warren, a senior nose tackle, and Polk, a junior middle linebacker, earned first-team All-Big 12 status. As a group, the defense surrendered 251.8 yards per game, its best figure since 1986.
The Huskers' dominant play, Coach Frank Solich said, becomes all the more impressive when one considers the NU schedule. The Huskers twice faced Texas' explosive offense. They also played consecutive games against Texas A&M, Kansas State, Colorado and the Longhorns late in the season.
"You didn't see any real breakdowns," Solich said. "They're certainly among the great defenses that we've had here at Nebraska. They have always risen to the occasion. I don't think there's any defense in the country that - when you add up how many good things these guys accomplish - could really outdo them."
Nebraska struggled into the second half of its 24-20 loss at Texas Oct. 23, surrendering 21 second-half points and a barrage of passing success from UT quarterback Major Applewhite. Kansas outplayed the Huskers in the first half of a 24-17 NU win Oct. 30, and Colorado exploited the Blackshirts in the second half of a 33-30 Nebraska win in overtime Nov. 26.
But through it all, Mike Brown said, the Huskers never lost their feeling of togetherness on defense.
"That's what I'm most proud of," Brown said. "When we step on the field, we feel like we have a lot to prove. I think we've really established ourselves this year, just by the way we've played every time out. There hasn't been a time where this defense hasn't given 100 percent effort."
Thirty-nine times this season, the defense helped give the NU offense possession of the football inside an opponent's territory. It happened nine times in the Huskers' 41-15 win over Kansas State Nov. 13.
From an offensive standpoint, the Huskers couldn't ask for more out of their defense.
"It's really kind of a treat to sit back and watch those guys get after it," senior tight end co-captain T.J. DeBates said. "They're relentless, and they really represent what this team is all about. Overall as a group, they play so well together.
"They may not have as many big-name type people as some teams have had, but as a group, I don't think I've seen anyone better."
The defenders prefer to withhold judgment on their place in NU history until after Sunday, Polk said. McBride, however, drops a hint that he'll remember these Blackshirts among the best units of the 18 he has directed at Nebraska.
"As far as I'm concerned, they're right up there," McBride said. "They're easy to coach. They love to practice. These guys won't let each other let down. They get on each other in a way that makes them all better. They've just kind of fallen together into a great group."