Nebraska wanted to force Southern Mississippi into five turnovers Thursday night.
“You have to set your sights high,” said first-year Husker defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. “We knew Southern Miss would have a lot of energy, and we wanted to match it.”
Nebraska did match Southern Mississippi’s energy. What’s more, the Huskers matched their goal of forcing five turnovers, coming up with three fumbles and two interceptions in a 38-14 victory that left NU’s already confident defense feeling even better about itself.
The Blackshirts entered the night ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense.
“And we want to stay there,” said Nebraska defensive end Benard Thomas. “Our goal next week will probably be to force six turnovers.”
Nebraska’s defense made it a long night for quarterback Dustin Almond, a sophomore starting in place of regular starter Micky D’Angelo.
Almond completed 4 of 24 passes for 68 yards, with two interceptions. He also lost two fumbles on the exchange from center.
“He’s a young quarterback, and we knew those turnovers could throw him off mentally,” Thomas said. “Obviously, it did.”
Nebraska, now 4-0, shot to a 17-0 lead, with 14 of those points the result of two turnovers. Husker nose tackle Ryon Bingham recovered Almond’s dropped snap. Four plays later, Jammal Lord scored on a 6-yard run on an option left.
After Nebraska went up 10-0 on David Dyches’ 40-yard field goal, Husker safety Josh Bullocks came up with his fourth interception of the year, setting up I-back David Horne’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Suddenly, Southern Miss’ rowdy student section, right behind Nebraska’s bench, was relatively quiet.
“We were able to establish momentum and keep it, for the most part, the rest of the game,” Pelini said.
On Southern Mississippi’s second possession of the third quarter, Almond botched another exchange from center, and Husker middle linebacker Barrett Ruud made his third fumble recovery of the season.
The Huskers converted three plays later on Lord’s 43-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Fluellen.
Nebraska’s wasn’t done forcing turnovers. Linebacker Demorrio Williams, who led the Huskers with 10 tackles, pounced on Almond’s errant option pitch later in the third quarter.
Nebraska senior safety Jerrell Pippens came up with his first career interception with 12 minutes left in the game.
The Huskers have now scored 47 points off 15 turnovers this season, compared with opponents’ seven points off seven turnovers. Last season, NU didn’t force its 12th turnover until the ninth game.
Nebraska head coach Frank Solich said the defense’s overall speed is causing problems for foes. What’s more, he said Pelini is doing a good job of changing coverages.
“We’re complex enough that it’s a little bit of a guessing game (for opponents),” Solich said.
Meanwhile, Nebraska continues to get strong play from Williams, who recorded one of the Huskers’ two sacks and was particularly disruptive in the first half.
“That’s one guy we knew we had to block,” said Southern Miss running back Tim Blackwell. “He’s their best player. He made the plays, and the rest of the defense plays off of him.”