BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — They saw the smirks and they heard the giggles on national TV.
Later, they heard lusty boos when a key booth review went their way. And many of them walked slowly — or outright limped — back to the locker room after they’d bent another fourth quarter to their will.
Nebraska players had a full grind before, during and after their 27-22 win over Indiana. It was a game of the merest pigskin survival — with some good breaks, big defensive stops and one of those patented Tommy Armstrong scramble-and-throws that can rescue NU’s offense from oblivion.
It was a day when what players called “disrespect” from ESPN “GameDay” analysts — who questioned whether the Huskers had really earned their top 10 national ranking — bounced its way around the pregame hotel and postgame interviews.
“They laughed at us for five minutes,” safety Kieron Williams said.
“Knowing our fans, everybody’s going to make sure everyone knows that people were laughing at us,” linebacker Josh Banderas said.
The Huskers have their doubters. Even as NU ran its record to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. Even as Nebraska did so despite having an offense so banged up with injuries that coordinator Danny Langsdorf conceded it was tough to call plays. Doubt, Nebraska players are sure, will persist.
“And I’m fine with that,” Williams said.
“We’re not a team to play with this year,” said cornerback Chris Jones, who had an interception return for a touchdown.
“There’s so much football we have to do better, but I wouldn’t trade this group for anything for the way they fight and finish,” coach Mike Riley said.
Yes, Nebraska clinched this win late in front of 48,254 fans at Memorial Stadium. All the fourth-quarter particulars were there. A 15-play, nearly eight-minute drive. A key fourth down conversion. A game-ending interception. The Huskers are still good closers.
But a hot start helped.
NU built a 17-0 first quarter lead thanks to two scoring drives to open the game — one of which was aided by Brandon Reilly’s 45-yard, flat-on-his-back circus grab — and Jones’ interception, which he returned 33 yards for the score after IU quarterback Richard Lagow threw a pass right to him.
“My eyes were pretty big,” Jones said.
After that initial surge, Nebraska’s offense “sputtered around,” Riley said. For two quarters and nine drives. Armstrong tossed two interceptions in that stretch. Indiana blocked a punt for a safety. The Huskers gained 79 yards on those nine drives, which allowed Indiana’s own creaky offense — consistently flustered by NU’s stellar secondary play and well-timed blitzes — to chip away at the lead.
By the end of the third quarter, IU (3-3, 1-2) had closed to 17-15 on Devine Redding’s 33-yard touchdown run — one of the few big plays the Blackshirts gave up. Armstrong threw an interception to start the fourth quarter, but Nebraska’s defense forced a punt.
Five plays later, on third-and-long from his own 28, Armstrong’s rough day had its one brilliant moment.
The senior quarterback spun away from pressure — as he’s done all season — rolled left and found sophomore wideout Stanley Morgan. A triangle of Indiana players closed in as Morgan caught the ball.
Armstrong said he’d told Morgan during the game to do a better job of coming back to the ball when Armstrong threw it. Morgan did that — and the Hoosiers collided. Morgan bounded away for a 72-yard touchdown. Nebraska led 24-15.
“I thought he made — what do you call it? — a signature play of his,” Langsdorf said with a knowing smile. Armstrong, clearly slowed by a sprained ankle, completed just 10 of 26 passes, though the average completion was worth 20.8 yards.
“You take the good with the bad,” Langsdorf said.
Nebraska’s defense was mostly good — holding the Hoosiers to 333 total yards — but it slumped midway through the fourth, when Indiana answered NU’s touchdown with a five-play 75-yard, 91-second touchdown drive. The Huskers were right back where they were before Armstrong’s big play — nursing a two-point lead.
That’s when the Huskers’ struggling offensive line finally got a push on Indiana’s defense. NU ran the ball 15 straight times.
“We finally got our minds right,” guard Sam Hahn said.
“We wore them out a little bit,” Langsdorf said.
That drive had two major drama points. First, NU converted a fourth-and-1 at midfield with an Armstrong sneak. Second, running back Terrell Newby was ruled down just before he fumbled the ball at the Indiana 20. Officials were confused — as some pointed that IU had the ball, while head linesman Michael Dolce said Newby was down. But after a review, the call stood: Newby was down and Nebraska got to keep the ball. Indiana’s fans booed, while the sliver of Husker fans cheered.
“We finally got a call,” Riley said. “We didn’t get many of them tonight.”
Three plays later, Drew Brown hooked a 39-yard field goal inside the right upright for a 27-22 lead.
Aaron Williams intercepted Lagow on the second play of Indiana’s final series.
Nebraska’s celebration was subdued. No line of Husker fans to high-five — their seats were atop a 30-foot wall. Armstrong limped back to the locker. So did left tackle Nick Gates — the best offensive lineman — who left the stadium with a chunk of ice on his right ankle as he rode on the back of a cart.
The Huskers are hobbled. But they’re 6-0, and they’ve technically qualified for a bowl game. A bowl game is all Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo expected of NU. Nebraska achieved that before all the leaves changed color.
Nebraska has had its toughness openly questioned. Despite critiques of not playing good teams, it is routinely picked to lose anyway. And that fact is not lost on Husker players, who know ESPN’s “GameDay” guys don’t think much of Nebraska.
But perfect isn’t always pretty. It’s just undefeated. And it sure beats last season.
“We want to be taken seriously,” Banderas said. “We’ve put in the work. We’re 6-0. Not many teams in the country are 6-0. No matter who you play. You have to come out and play every game. It doesn’t matter who’s the opponent. If it was easy, everybody would be 6-0.”
Armstrong, who has faced as many critics as he has pass rushers, had the final word.
“Other people may laugh at us — talking about ‘Are we real?’ or ‘Are we a great team?’” Armstrong said. “Great teams win games. That’s all I’ve got to say about it.”