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Published Friday, September 21, 2001

Blackshirts shine once again
Huskers fall just short of a shutout against Rice Owls

Last modified at 12:31 a.m. on Friday, September 21, 2001

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photo: HuskersHQ
Independent/Gerik Parmele
Nebraska's Mark Vedral (9) and Steve Safranek (42) tackle Rice Quarterback Kyle Herm.

By Tony Brott

LINCOLN -- Despite being overshadowed by a stellar offensive performance, the Nebraska defense proved once again that it will be a strength of the team during the season.

Coming as close as it had all season to a shutout, Nebraska instead yielded only a fourth-quarter field goal en route to a 48-3 win Thursday night at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Even though the wishbone attack of Rice managed more yards against the Huskers than any team had the entire year, it was mostly for naught. Afterward, coach Frank Solich said he was pleased with the effort by a young defense that is growing up quickly.

"All of our young players (on defense) have responded really well," Solich said. "They're playing with a lot of maturity and that's something that you just don't always expect. They're playing with a lot of enthusiasm, and that's not just the young guys but the whole team."

Another player on defense, not inexperienced at all, came back from an injury to give Nebraska a spark. Senior cornerback Erwin Swiney had a strong game in his first game in the defensive backfield.

Swiney had to wait longer than most of his teammates for his first extended game action. After suffering a serious ankle injury during fall camp, he had been limited to special teams duty in the Notre Dame game before seeing time at cornerback Thursday.

"I'm just glad to be back," Swiney said. "I was very anxious to play. Being a senior waiting on the sidelines is not very fun."

Swiney's interception in the second quarter thwarted a Rice drive at the Owls' 40-yard-line and set up Eric Crouch's 6-yard touchdown run to give Nebraska a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. Teammate and fellow cornerback Keyuo Craver said it was good seeing Swiney back on the field.

"I'm so happy for him," Craver said. "He is a guy who has taken a lot of criticism in his career, but he's a good player. It's hard to ignore that stuff sometimes, but he did. He came out tonight and got the job done, and we're all proud of him."

Craver's resilience was something that's contagious among the Blackshirts.

As they have in the first three games this season, the Huskers took occasional shots from the other team's offense without yielding scores.

The Huskers defense overcame its first serious challenge when Rice's Robbie Beck broke loose for a 54-yard gain to the Nebraska 24-yard-line in the second quarter. On their next three plays the Owls were stuffed on two runs and had a pass broken up at the goal-line.

The threat ended when NU's DeJuan Groce blocked Brandon Skeen's 41-yard field goal attempt.

After totaling 161 yards in the first half, Rice was shut down in the third quarter. The first two drives of the quarter resulted in zero yards and minus five yards, respectively.

A third drive, which went backwards initially, finally saw Rice make progress. A long pass play moved the Owls from the shadow of their own goal line to near midfield.

A couple of long runs moved Rice into Nebraska territory and close to another scoring opportunity. Despite driving to the Nebraska 18-yard-line by the end of the third quarter, the Owls were once again turned away. A sack by Casey Nelson pushed back the Owls nine yards. After a stop by Barrett Ruud on third down, Rice's Skeen was wide left on a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Swiney said the Huskers are not lacking for playmakers on defense.

"It's a big plus for us," he said. "Any of the guys on defense have the ability to raise the level of their game."

For its part, Rice was impressed with what they saw across the line on the Nebraska defense.

"You have to give credit to Nebraska's defense," defensive back Jason Herbert said. "In my whole career I have never seen a more fundamental team than Nebraska."

Quarterback Kyle Herm, who saw the Blackshirts up close and in person, was left with another impression.

"Their defensive front is unbelievably fast," he said. "Their secondary guys are good enough to cover one-on-one which allows them to bring everybody else up to stop the run."

Near the end of the game, Solich emptied the bench and many reserves saw playing time on defense.

With Rice threatening at the Nebraska 5-yard-line, reserve Carl Scholting stepped in front of a Greg Henderson pass at the goal line and returned it to the 35-yard-line to snuff out yet another Rice opportunity and keep the margin at 48-3.

Craver said that despite the blowout, the Blackshirts had keen interest in what was going on late in the contest.

"We were all on the sideline watching, cheering and cussing them," he said. "We can do that because we're family."

One that is growing up fast, by all appearances.

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