LINCOLN — Despite the occasional hiccup, Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson says he sees the Cornhuskers’ defense growing together on a daily basis.
Evidence of that improvement came in Saturday’s 27-17 Big Ten Conference win over Rutgers at Memorial Stadium. After allowing an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession, Jackson’s unit largely held the Scarlet Knights in check the rest of the way.
Rutgers (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) didn’t score an offensive TD after its opening possession and finished with 194 yards of total offense — the lowest in head coach Mike Riley’s three years at Nebraska. The Scarlet Knights managed just 58 total yards, while Huskers’ safety Antonio Reed and linebacker Luke Gifford both had interceptions in the second half.
“We’re growing closer each day, every day,” said Jackson, who finished with four tackles including three solo stops. “We’re young and the coaches are still trying to get a feel for everybody. We know that we’re growing and there’s going to be some problems and be some issues, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a good group and everybody’s working hard to get better each and every day.”
Nebraska’s solid performance came amid some hardship as leading tackler and safety Aaron Williams was ejected for targeting with 11:25 remaining in the first quarter. However, with senior Kieron Williams filling in for Aaron Williams, Jackson said the Huskers didn’t miss a beat.
“We’ve got a real tight secondary and defense, in general,” Jackson said. “One of the things we really strive for is our brotherhood, caring for each other and playing with love.
“At the end of the day, we’ve all got to play for each other in different zones and different schemes, so if one guy goes (out), we stressed during the week for everyone to prepare like you’re going to play.”
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he was proud of the way his defense responded to Rutgers’ early TD and the loss of Aaron Williams.
“The players, themselves, just persevered,” Diaco said. “There was adversity in the game. They didn’t blink — didn’t bat an eye. They just kept swinging and throwing haymakers.”
Reed, Gifford and linebacker Dedrick Young led Nebraska (2-2, 1-0) with six tackles apiece. The Huskers held Rutgers leading rusher Gus Edwards to 58 yards on 15 carries, while Scarlet Knights quarterback Kyle Bolin was 15 of 29 passing for 126 yards with two interceptions.
When asked about allowing Rutgers to gain just 68 yards rushing and 126 yards passing — both season-bests for the Huskers — Diaco said he doesn’t really look at statistics when it comes to judging the defense’s performance.
“I don’t want to necessarily even know what they are,” Diaco said of the final numbers. “We want to play the plays well, grow the players and help them be fundamentally sound and win their individual matchups.”
Rutgers, which entered the contest ranked No. 93 nationally in total offense, failed to mount much of anything after its opening drive. The Scarlet Knights’ offense managed only a field goal the rest of the way and the visitors scored their other TD as the result of Kiy Hester’s 33-yard pick-six that put Rutgers ahead 17-14 just 53 seconds into the third quarter.
The Scarlet Knights’ five second-half possessions resulted in three punts and two interceptions. The last pick came courtesy of Gifford with 54 seconds to play and allowed the Nebraska offense to finish the game in victory formation — something Jackson said was sorely needed after a turbulent week that saw the firing of NU athletics directory Shawn Eichorst.
“It was a relief,” Jackson said of Gifford’s interception. “Once you see (your) quarterback take a knee, you knew that your job was done, so we started congratulating everybody and getting happy. It was good to see everybody smile.”