Erwin Swiney watched from the sideline during Nebraska's first three games as the Husker defense and secondary answered questions about just how good they would be.
On Thursday night, in his return to the defensive lineup from a bad sprained ankle, Swiney left little question to whether or not Nebraska's secondary could use his services.
The answer was a resounding yes, as Swiney helped spark Nebraska to a 48-3 pasting of Rice.
With starting free safety Willie Amos and rover Lannie Hopkins banged up and out of action, Swiney's comeback to the Blackshirts couldn't have come at a better time.
"I'm just happy to be back," said Swiney, who only played special teams against Notre Dame. "Any player who has played a lot of games and is sidelined by an injury would be eager to get back."
Swiney denied Rice's closest chance for a touchdown in the second quarter, breaking up Greg Henderson's pass to Leroy Bradley at the goal line. Swiney said Bradley pushed off and knocked him off-balance, but the senior recovered and batted the ball down.
On the very next play, DeJuan Groce partially blocked Brandon Skeen's 41-yard field goal attempt.
Swiney wasn't done in the second quarter, intercepting Henderson on Rice's very next drive - the fourth interception of his career. Henderson lofted a pass to Josh Seale near Rice's bench at the 40-yard line and Swiney played it perfectly, turning at the last second and falling down with the ball in his lap.
"I just made sure I watched his eyes and set him up," Swiney said of Seale. "As soon as his eyes lit up, I turned around and caught the ball."
Swiney's performance delighted coaches and teammates alike.
"I was so happy for him tonight," Keyuo Craver said. "He is a guy who has taken a lot of criticism in his career, but he's a good player."
Said NU secondary coach George Darlington: "Areas where he needed to improve, he did, and did a tremendous job during fall camp. He was ready to go and the injury disappointed all of us and that's why I was so excited tonight - as were the other defensive coaches."
But Swiney, who finished with two tackles, was by no means the only thorn in Rice's side. Nebraska's defense intimidated the Owl offense from the get-go, forcing Rice into four penalties - three false starts and one delay of game - in its first two drives.
Nebraska almost produced points on Rice's first possession, nearly scoring a safety when the snap sailed over quarterback Kyle Herm's head. Rice was flagged for a false start, but on the next play, Herm's pass from the back of the end zone was intercepted by Scott Shanle. But Shanle's momentum took him out of bounds, resulting in an incompletion, and Rice had to punt.
Rice managed only a field goal, a 25-yarder by Skeen with 7:49 left in the game. Nebraska held Rice to four possessions of three plays or less.
Nebraska's secondary, which included freshman Philip Bland starting his first game, held Rice to just 25 yards passing in the first half, allowing just 2 completions on 12 attempts. NU came into the game giving up just more than 146 yards per game passing, but Rice managed 169 on 8 completions.
The Huskers were led by Jerrell Pippens' eight tackles. True freshman Barrett Ruud followed with seven and Craver added six with two pass breakups. NU had 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and broke up six passes.
Against lower-unit defenses in the fourth quarter, Rice scored its only points and gained 136 of its 365 total yards, but was turned away again in the red zone with just more than a minute to play when free safety Carl Scholting intercepted Henderson.
"We were looking, from a statistical standpoint, how the first team did when the game was on the line," Darlington said.
"We are hopefully developing a lot of quality depth and I think we also have a pretty good idea of who should play where and in what situation."
Reach Joshua Buechler at 473-7431 or email@example.com.