LINCOLN — Nebraska’s two defensive stars were both able to shine bright in their final game at Memorial Stadium.
The Cornhuskers’ two defensive All-America candidates — linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard — both came up big in Friday’s 20-7 Heroes Game victory over Iowa on senior day. David added to his already robust reel of highlight-quality plays, while Dennard had a major role in shutting down one of the Big Ten Conference’s best receivers.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the game was about pride for the two Blackshirt seniors, who helped their unit bounce back from a disappointing performance in a 45-17 loss last Saturday at Michigan.
“I know there was a lot of frustration in that locker room after that game because we didn’t think that that game was very indicative of who we were,” Pelini said. “Our guys have a lot of pride and they talked last night — the players did — about putting their best foot forward and ending this thing on a positive note here at home.”
No. 22-ranked Nebraska (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) limited Iowa (7-5, 4-4) to 270 yards of total offense — 157 yards through the game’s first three quarters. More importantly, the Huskers had designs on a shutout until the Hawkeyes finally got a 2-yard touchdown run from Marcus Coker with 3:26 to play.
While the Blackshirts had plenty of standouts — players like Chase Rome, Jay Guy and Justin Jackson had to step up due to early ankle injuries suffered by starting defensive tackles Terrence Moore and Baker Steinkuhler — the play of David and Dennard stood out.
David recorded a team-high eight tackles, but turned in yet another memorable play to his senior-season collection that already includes a key strip and fumble recovery of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and a fourth-down tackle against Penn State’s Silas Redd.
This time, David was pushed to the ground by Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was flagged for offensive pass interference on the play, but the Butkus Award semifinalist refused to stay down. David sprung to his feet and forced a fumble by Fiedorowicz that David recovered himself.
“For him to get up and go make that play, that was a big-time football play,” Pelini said. “That’s who he is, though. He never quits on anything.”
David said he was angry after getting shoved by Fiedorowicz.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do something to make up for this,’” David said. “I didn’t know that they threw the flag for pass interference on the offense and I just saw the ball hanging out and I took a shot it and fortunately, it turned out great.”
David now has 122 tackles for the season, moving him into the top 10 on the Nebraska single-season tackles list. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Miami already owns the Huskers’ single-season tackles record with 152 set last season and he’s now fifth on NU’s career charts.
“Lavonte is an amazing football player,” Pelini said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the best guys I’ve ever seen play college football.
“It’s not just his skill level and his talent, it’s his commitment to the game and the way he approaches the learning process and the preparation. He’s a student of the game beyond his innate natural abilities.”
Although David has played just two seasons at Nebraska after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, he said he’s loved everything about the program. Prior to the game, he said he struggled to keep his feelings in check.
“It was emotional,” David said. “During seven-on-seven (drills), I kind of dropped some tears — I’m going to be honest and say it. Just looking around and seeing everybody just looking at you, you know it’s going to be your last game here and you’re just looking at the guys you go to war with. It’s a great feeling.”
While David’s play was memorable, Dennard’s ability to help Nebraska shut down Iowa’s Marvin McNutt throughout the game was also impressive. With Dennard matching up on him nearly every time the Huskers were in man-to-man pass coverage, the Hawkeyes’ all-time leader in TD receptions finished with just four catches for 29 yards.
“Schematically, we worked really hard to try to eliminate (McNutt) from the game,” Pelini said. “We tried to create the matchups we wanted and (double-team) him as much as we possibly could, based on their formations and it worked pretty good.”
Dennard said he studied video of McNutt extensively and picked up on a trend. In most cases, McNutt would try to get an outside release off the line of scrimmage when he wanted to cut to the middle of the field and vice versa. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Dennard and the Huskers played as good of pass coverage as the Hawkeyes have seen all season.
“Dennard is a hell of a corner,” Ferentz said.
“Alfonzo plays with great technique and just knows how to get hands on guys and get physical with them,” Pelini said. “He uses his body well and he competes. That’s the greatest thing about him.”
Once healthy after missing the first three games of the season with an injury, Dennard thrived when asked to match up against top receivers in Big Ten play. In an Oct. 29 win against Michigan State, Dennard helped the Huskers hold Spartans’ start wideout B.J. Cunningham without a reception, again rising up to meet a challenge.
“He loves that,” Pelini said. “It meant something and he challenges himself. That’s in his competitive nature. I think he’d prefer that kind of thing every week.”
While those performances against top-flight receivers might have Dennard’s NFL draft stock on the rise, the 5-10, 205-pound senior from Rochelle, Ga., said he remains focused on the here and now.
“I’m in college right now, so I’m just looking to go out there and play my college life,” Dennard said. “I’m not looking (ahead) to the NFL. I just try to play my game and shut them down.”