LINCOLN — Minnesota was 73 yards away from a potential game-tying score on Saturday night, leaving Nebraska to rely on its defense to protect a 24-17 lead.
It was maybe a little touchy and nerve-wracking and suspenseful — but it also was something the Blackshirts weren’t afraid to embrace.
“It’s definitely fun to go out there with kind of the weight of the stadium on you,” defensive end Ross Dzuris said. “Going out there with a small lead, either having to hold them to a field goal or get a three-and-out or something, that pressure is fun.”
It also maybe didn’t hurt that it was anything but new to Dzuris and his defensive mates.
Minnesota was the fifth team in the last eight games to have the football in the last five minutes with Nebraska either holding a one-score lead or the game being tied.
The Husker defense again found a way to hold its ground.
“Our coaches have instilled it in us, and especially since the end of last year, just to do our best to finish,” safety Kieron Williams said. “That’s in drills, that’s in everything that we do … so when it comes down to finishing out on the field, it’s instinctive and you’re not thinking about it too much. You’re just trusting the things that they’ve taught us, the techniques that they’ve taught us.”
Minnesota took over at its own 27-yard line with 2:58 left Saturday night. It even moved into the red zone with the help of a pass-interference penalty on Josh Kalu and a 25-yard completion from Mitch Leidner to Tyler Johnson.
But Williams then intercepted Leidner with 1:29 left, snagging a pass that was intended for Drew Wolitarsky but was tipped by Husker nickel back Aaron Williams.
Nebraska also had forced a three-and-out immediately after taking its 24-17 lead with 7:17 to go. Its last trip out followed the Gophers forcing a Husker punt.
“You just have to have that confidence and just know that all the work we’ve put in, it comes down to this drive essentially,” Kieron Williams said. “So we just try to do our best to get our minds into it and lock in and do our best.”
The other times this season when the Nebraska defense needed to shut the door:
» It got off to a good start against Oregon, which took over with 2:29 left and NU leading 35-32. The Ducks advanced to the Husker 40 before being stopped on downs, with key plays being an Aaron Williams pass breakup and a Freedom Akinmoladun sack.
» Illinois was within 24-16 when it got the ball with 4:32 left. The Huskers forced a three-and-out and scored a touchdown on the next drive. The Illini got the ball back with 2:03 left, down 15, but were stopped on downs.
» Nebraska had just bumped a 24-22 lead to 27-22 at Indiana when the Hoosiers would get one last shot with 45 seconds to go. After Kieron Williams almost intercepted Richard Lagow on first down, Aaron Williams picked him off on the next play.
» After NU stopped the first two Wisconsin drives of the fourth quarter with Nate Gerry interceptions, it faced one more after kicking a game-tying field goal with 3:43 remaining. The Badgers immediately got a 41-yard run from Corey Clement to reach the Husker 34, but Nebraska stiffened and Wisconsin missed a field goal.
The disappointment at Wisconsin was not being able to stop the Badgers in overtime, but it was another time where it maybe fed off the late-game success of previous weeks to go out with the confidence it needed.
“I wouldn’t say it gets any easier,” Kieron Williams said, “but at least we have the experience of it happening.”
Nebraska couldn’t get those stops for a better part of last season, which resulted in several of the heartbreaking finishes during a 3-6 start.
What seems to be happening late in games now, coach Mike Riley said, simply goes with the Huskers being better defensively long before those final minutes come along.
“Our overall defense is sounder. We’re just playing better, which I think has allowed us to be sounder in those crunch situations in the fourth quarter, when you’ve got to make a stop of some kind, where we didn’t ever do that last year in those kinds of ballgames,” Riley said.
Riley called it a better overall blending of the coaching and the playing and said it benefited from some differences in what Nebraska can do with pass coverages and the variety of looks it can give a quarterback late in games.
With the offense also doing some good work late, Nebraska has continued to play some of its best football in the fourth quarter with a 115-20 scoring edge in the final 15 minutes.
Kevin Maurice almost got the Huskers off the field sooner Saturday night, nearly getting a sack of Leidner before he got off a third-down throw from the Gophers’ 34. The previous series, defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg stood up tailback Rodney Smith on a first-down run before Kalu and Gerry dropped Smith just before the marker on a third-down reception.
Dzuris said nothing different is being said before those late series but rather there’s just a quiet trust on the sideline before they go out.
“I think it mainly has to do with as the game goes on we just feel more and more comfortable out there,” Dzuris said. “We’ve given up just a play here or there a couple times in a few games, and by the end of the game we’ve figured out all those little fixes, how we need to adapt.
“And by the fourth quarter, we have a lot of confidence, our offense has been controlling the ball, so it’s going out there and just making the few plays that we have to.”