The Blackshirts, deciding their own fate

After watching the Missouri game, how far did you have to think back to when you last saw the NU defense run around like that, play with fire like that? Back to the beginning of the season? Back to last year? Back even farther than that? Nebraska fans watched the performance of the blackshirts this last weekend as the Huskers stonewalled Brad Smith and they might have been thinking about the last time it happened, but more were probably hoping that NU could do it again.

Though an injury took him out of the game early, T.J. Hollowell was not at a loss for what he saw against Missouri. Few could avoid it really as NU dominated an offense that had shredded everyone before them, including the Oklahoma Sooners. To you or I, what they did might have seem like something new, but to T.J., this isn't something they are unaccustomed. "I haven't seen our defense since we played Arizona State." Hollowell stated. "It's a credit to our coaches and the tone they set for us all week in practice"

After the game, people talked about why this game was so different than recent ones people are still trying to purge from their memory. What could be so different with this squad versus the previous unit that was getting clobbered by Penn State and Iowa State? Like always, it was never one thing, but a combination that led NU's defense to the success it had against the Tigers. "I think the attitude in the young guys was a big difference." T.J said. "It seemed like they had a whole new confidence about themselves and what they were doing. When you see them out there when you know they used to be a little hesitant, you just get excited from that, build on that and believe in each other."

That would seem like a very plausible explanation. With the recent wholesale changes made on the defense, it's almost logical. Actually, too logical. Changes in personnel make a difference, but when you have substituted as liberally as NU has this season, there has to be something else.

There was.

Prior to this game and the only time this has happened thus far, coach Craig Bohl decided to make another change. Instead of the coaches outlining what the team wanted to do (outside of stopping the other guy), they were going to leave the goals for the defense up to the defense to make. The onus would go on each player to decide along with their teammates just what they wanted to get done.

And they did.

When the defensive coaches had returned, the goals had been set, the players had spoken and what was there on the chalkboard was; under 100 yards rushing, 13 points or less allowed, 3 turnovers caused and so on. Technically speaking, just numbers, but for this unit that has been maligned quite feverishly at times, this was a representation of what they thought they could do against a quality offense like Missouri. It was their belief in themselves. "Whatever we put up there is how we felt about ourselves." Hollowell stated. "We could have easily put any numbers up there, but coach Bohl let us do that so he could see how we felt about ourselves."

Setting goals is one thing, but attaining them is quite another, but T.J. said that when the game ensued, from the outset, he saw something he had never seen before. "That was the first time in a game that I saw everyone looking up there (at the stat board) and shooting for those goals. It was like, they had 96 at half, so we got to stop them, sack them, just do whatever to make them lose yards, so everyone was really going at it hard to get those goals."

In the end, it seems as if the coaches' greatest achievement this weekend was not trying to be coaches at all. Sure, you can't just not coach, but wouldn't it seem to at least the naked eye that when the coaches stepped back, let the players take charge, at least of where they wanted to be, that's when the blackshirts even if just for a game became the blackshirts everyone remembers? "I think so." T.J. said. "It was a good idea for them to step back a bit and let our leaders like Chris Kelsay and DeJuan Groce sit there and be more like coaches and edge us on."

"I think that was a real smart thing for our defensive coaches to do. I like the idea and think that in future years, that's what we should do."

You can hardly argue with the results. Nebraska shut down a budding super star in Brad Smith and confused the hell out of an offensive line that at times chewed up and spit out the vaunted Oklahoma Sooner defensive front.

In a press conference after the Iowa State game, coach Frank Solich talked about how this team would either come together or splinter apart. That it would either be united they stand or divided they fall and that would ultimately decide the fate of the season. Though we aren't looking at both sides of the ball at this instant, if you want a good idea of what direction of where this team is going, given those two choices, you simply have to listen or in this case, read. "I am just glad that we executed better than what we have been in the past few games." T.J. said.

"I am just proud of our defense and our coaches and how we have all really came together."

Make sure to check out the Inside NU&Recruiting message board for "Sound Bytes" w/ T.J. Hollowell as you get to hear in his own words, all of what you read above, plus some tidbits here and there that weren't part of the story.

Steve Ryan can be reached at huskerconnection@neb.rr.com or 402-730-5619


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