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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2002

Big 12 games this week:
SATURDAY

Nebraska at Oklahoma State, 11:30 a.m. (Fox Sports Net)

Texas A&M at Kansas, 1 p.m.

Baylor at Colorado, 2 p.m.

Iowa State at Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)

Texas at Kansas State, 6 p.m. (Fox Sports Net)

Missouri at Texas Tech, 6 p.m.

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ELIZABETH ORTEGA/Lincoln Journal Star
Missouri quarterback Brad Smith (16) finds little room to run in the first quarter as Husker defenders Philip Bland (21) and Ryon Bingham (59) combine to stop Smith after a 2-yard gain. Smith had 132 yards of total offense in the first half, but the Blackshirts limited him to only 25 in the second half.
NU-MISSOURI: Back in black

Husker defense regains its edge,tames wily Tigers

Last week, tears welled in the eyes of Nebraska head coach Frank Solich as he stood before the media.

Saturday, it was Craig Bohl who became misty-eyed.

The third-year Nebraska defensive coordinator had just watched his maligned unit pitch a second-half shutout against Missouri, the team that had amassed 449 yards of total offense last week against Oklahoma's vaunted defense.

The Tigers, however, scratched out only 220 yards against the Huskers, who prevailed 24-13 before 78,014 spectators at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska, now 5-2 overall and 1-1 in the league, badly needed the triumph in a season that might have unraveled with a second loss to a Big 12 North rival. NU fell to Iowa State two weeks ago.

As for Bohl, he's been a prime target for those calling for changes in the program.

"There's been a lot of criticism this season, people saying we're not like the old Blackshirts," said Bohl, whose defense had been allowing 362 yards per game to rank 56th nationally.

Saturday, Nebraska allowed only two first downs and 28 total yards in the second half.

Missouri fell to 3-3 and 0-2 as touted redshirt freshman quarterback Brad Smith was held to 157 total yards after ravaging the Sooners for 391 in a 31-24 loss.

The Tigers on Saturday managed just 97 yards on the ground.

"I really believe in our players," Bohl said. "They have a real drive and want-to about them. For them to play with that kind of passion and effort, it really touched me."

Said Solich: "We've shown flashes of being a great defensive team, but we had not quite put it together. As today's game went on, that happened."

Surprisingly, it happened with starting rush end Chris Kelsay, arguably Nebraska's best defender, watching from the sideline because of a hamstring injury.

Several Husker defenders raised their games in his absence, most notably rush ends Trevor Johnson (five tackles, one sack) and Demoine Adams (four tackles, two sacks).

Offensively, Nebraska, playing before its 252nd straight sellout, rolled up 325 rushing yards, including 63 during a momentum-changing, six-play scoring drive right before halftime that gave the Huskers the lead for good at 14-13.

The march followed a defensive stand in which Nebraska stopped Missouri on fourth-and-2.

Senior cornerback DeJuan Groce gave Nebraska breathing room by returning a punt 89 yards for a touchdown with 7:24 left in the third quarter. It was his third punt-return TD this season, tying Johnny Rodgers' 31-year-old school record.

Josh Brown added a 42-yard field goal with 11:40 left in the game, pushing Nebraska's lead to 24-13.

With their defense dominating, the Huskers had a strong grip on their nation-leading 26th consecutive home triumph and 24th straight win against the Tigers.

"It was a huge win in a lot of ways," Solich said.

For one, Nebraska needed the triumph to stay in the Big 12 North title hunt. The Huskers also sought momentum entering treacherous road games the next two weeks, first at Oklahoma State, then at Texas A&M.

Few pundits, however, could have envisioned such an outing from Nebraska's defense, which generally lacked discipline and fire in road losses to Penn State (40-7) and Iowa State (36-14).

Last week, Division I-AA McNeese State racked up 355 yards against the Huskers. NU quarterback Jammal Lord, however, shredded the Cowboys for 369 yards of total offense, a performance that stirred Solich's emotions during the postmortem.

Against Mizzou, Lord returned to human status, rushing for 98 yards and completing 4 of 12 passes for 34 yards.

This time, it was the defense that donned Superman capes.

"That, in my mind, is how this defense should always play," said senior linebacker Scott Shanle, referring specifically to the second half.

So, why did Nebraska's defense wait until Saturday to pull the capes from the closet?

"That's a good question," said sophomore free safety Philip Bland.

Smith, meanwhile, had trouble coming up with correct answers to the puzzle Nebraska threw at him. In a departure from the norm, the Huskers typically kept three linebackers in the game in an effort to stymie Smith's running prowess (he finished with 34 rushing yards, 87 less than his average). Nebraska designated one player to stay with Smith.

Because Nebraska played with three linebackers, the Huskers' secondary often faced one-on-one situations. NU seldom used zone coverage, leaning heavily on cornerbacks Groce, Fabian Washington and Pat Ricketts.

Missouri standout receiver Justin Gage, who had been averaging 102.7 receiving yards per game, was held to 47 on seven catches.

"I thought those guys really rose to the occasion," Bohl said of the NU cornerbacks. "They allowed us to play an extra guy in the box."

Bohl praised his defenders for "taking ownership" of the game. Indeed, he said, the coaches on Friday left the defense in a conference room in the bowels of the stadium with instructions to write down three goals for the game.

With captains Kelsay and Groce leading the session, the Blackshirts decided they wanted to hold Missouri to 13 points, 100 rushing yards and 250 total yards.

Check, check and check.

Said Bland:"Chris was the general. He got up and told us our goals and asked if there were any objections."

Not a peep, Bland said.

"We (the coaches)didn't think it was unrealistic," Bohl said. "But we knew we'd have to play extremely well to do that.

"Once we were able to get them out of the running game, I really felt like we gained more and more control of the game."

The Tigers, unable to run, found nowhere to hide.

"Without question, I think this game will ratchet up our confidence," Bohl said.

Against Penn State, he said, Nebraska's defense lacked the "hard edge" it needed. But Bohl said he noticed the defense moving in the right direction against Iowa State and McNeese State.

"It may not have been apparent in the stands, but as a coaching staff, we saw it, and we did a lot of things to try to nurture that," Bohl said.

Saturday, Nebraska's defense blossomed, engulfing Missouri's upset chances.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


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