A Time for Change: Is Nebraska Set to Surprise the Big 12?

Josh KleinCorrespondent ISeptember 28, 2009

It's a picture Husker fans have waited a long time to see.

I'm not talking about the goose egg on the scoreboard; although that was impressive, it was also a missed field goal away from becoming another three-point game for a Sun Belt squad against the Huskers.

Yes, I know it did snap a streak of not shutting a team out since the Huskers defeated Troy 56-0 in 2006—ironically another Sun Belt team, and ironically the last time Nebraska won the North division in the Big 12 (foreshadowing?).

Still, that's not the picture I'm referring to here.

The picture I am talking about is a second quarter play against UL-Lafayette. With just under six-and-a-half minutes to play in the half, the Cornhuskers had already built a 27 to nothing lead on the Ragin' Cajuns.

It's 3rd-and-10, the Cajuns are threatening in Nebraska territory, and Chris Masson, the UL-Lafayette quarterback, has been on fire. They are threatening to score. Bo Pelini decides to send a linebacker blitz; they need to get pressure on Masson and force a bad throw to get the ball back and preserve a first half shutout. 

That's when Sean Fisher comes streaking through the A-Gap on the offensive line. Masson's eyes widen as he desperately seeks an open receiver. Meanwhile, a veteran safety named Larry Asante licks his lips and reads the quarterback's eyes.

Masson released, and Asante reacted, stepping in front of the bullet pass. As he did so, he found that it was cradled in his arms, and he realized he had an unimpeded path to the end zone—and then he was on his way to a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown. 

To me, this was the biggest play of the game. Why?

For two reasons, the first being the obvious: Asante was injured on the play. But that's not my point. The second is that the actual interception return for a touchdown was by a defensive back.

I know, I know, Nebraska had two interceptions returned for touchdowns last season. Both were by a man we know as Ndamukong Suh, and that is precisely my point.

Since the year 2002, not one—count them, NOT one—Nebraska Cornhusker secondary player has returned an interception for a touchdown. Fabian Washington was the last Husker to do the offense the favor. It was a 29-yard interception return against Arizona State in his freshman year in the fourth quarter.

It has been seven years since that no Nebraska secondary player has done that deed. 

Why is this important? Because good defenses have good secondaries, and even though Asante was injured on the play (apparently a bruised ankle), he will be okay in a few weeks to play against the high-octane offense of Blaine Gabbert and the Missouri Tigers.

The big deal is that it finally looks like the Nebraska defense has bought into the Pelini way of thinking.

Last year at times they got down on themselves and gave up big plays. Even during the first three games of this season we have seen breakdowns in the linebacking corps and the secondary, but the absence of a big play was rather noticeable on Saturday. In fact, the biggest play of the game for Ragin' Cajuns was a 25-yard pass play late in the first half. 

Obviously Nebraska has not played any offensive juggernauts this season, and to think that holding a Sun Belt team with a new quarterback and new running back to zero points will translate to similar results against a team like Missouri is silly homerism.

However, there is something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat. Missouri has done that, and Nebraska has done that. But there is also something to be said for slaughtering teams you are supposed to beat and then something else to barely get by.

Which leads me to the title of this article (sorry it took so long): Is the Big 12 North ready for a surprise? Nebraska outscored its first four opponents 157-36 and still, somehow, came out 3-1.

Meanwhile, Missouri and Kansas, two teams with markedly lower strengths in their out of conference schedules, beat their opponents 147-62 and 162-61 respectively and somehow both finished 4-0 in their non-conference schedule.

Are they ready for the defense Nebraska will bring to the table though? Kansas played teams with a combined record of 7-9 and one team that was 1-3 in the FCS (former Division I-AA).

Missouri has played teams with a combined 5-9 record and also one FCS team with a 3-1 record. FBS teams they have played are a combined 2-8, and two of them (Nevada and Illinois) have each been shut out once this year.

Nebraska played no FCS opponents, came a breath away from beating a top-10 team, and outscored four FBS teams by more of a spread than either Kansas or Missouri have against three FBS teams and one FCS team. 

In other words, given the first three games, even though Missouri and Kansas are a combined 8-0, Nebraska looks better statistically in almost every category defensively and offensively than either of these teams.

So it seems with Larry Asante's 74-yard interception return for a touchdown, the first by a Husker defensive back in seven years, Nebraska has turned a corner.

The rest of the Big 12 should ask themselves, are we ready?