By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Kieron Williams figures he’s not run that far with a football in his hands since playing a high school game.
Officially, Williams’ interception return for a touchdown in Nebraska’s 52-17 victory Saturday over Wyoming covered 23 yards.
Unofficially, it covered, well, a lot more than that.
Williams caught a pass that deflected off the hands of Wyoming receiver Jake Maulhardt near the Wyoming sideline. Cornerback Chris Jones initially freed Williams, who saw green space and began running across the field.
And running, and running.
“I know, I looked pretty slow,” Williams said, letting out a hearty laugh.
With the help of a key block from cornerback Joshua Kalu and another at the goal line by safety Nate Gerry, Williams angled his way into the end zone, a couple of yards inside the pylon on the opposite side of the field from where his journey began.
“There were a lot of people over there, so it was fun just to be able to try to get in the end zone,” Williams said. “Honestly, I blanked out. I just tried to make some extra yardage so the offense could be able to score easier.”
“It’s a blessing for me to be able to score a touchdown,” Williams said. “I would’ve never imagined that going into the game.”
Few would’ve imagined the Blackshirts forcing six Wyoming turnovers, either, at least based on recent seasons. Combined with two interceptions last week against Fresno – one by Williams – the Blackshirts have collected eight turnovers in their first two games.
Any idea how long it took Nebraska to collect eight turnovers last season?
“I couldn’t tell you, honestly,” Gerry said.
It came in game seven, against Minnesota, which Nebraska entered having recovered three fumbles and intercepted three passes. The Huskers collected two turnovers against the Gophers that day.
“As a defense, that’s one thing we strive for each day is to get turnovers,” said Gerry, a senior who collected two fourth-quarter interceptions, numbers 10 and 11 of his career, and finished with seven tackles to push his career total to 206.
“Stats say the more turnovers you get the better chance you have to win. As a defense, we’re trying to be an elite group, and with that, we need to create a lot of turnovers. It creates energy. It’s contagious.”
It certainly turned the tide of Saturday’s game.
Wyoming, much improved from last year’s 2-10 outfit, trailed just 17-10 in the third quarter when Williams scored to push Nebraska’s lead to 24-10.
The Cowboys answered with a touchdown drive to pull back within seven, but quarterback Josh Allen, who’d been described by his own coach as a “gunslinger,” not unlike Brett Favre, began pressing, and the Blackshirts capitalized with three fourth-quarter interceptions.
“The throws were there, just got to be smart with the ball,” said Allen, who threw five interceptions and was charged with a lost fumble on a backwards pass. “I made a few bad decisions that really cost our team eventually. I just can’t allow it to keep continuing like it did.”
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, the former Husker player, assistant coach and defensive coordinator, credited Nebraska’s defense for stopping the run and making the Cowboys one-dimensional.
In the first half, Nebraska stuffed Wyoming for no gain on third-and-3, a gain of 1 yard on third-and-2 and no gain on third-and-1. Defensive tackle Carlos Davis, making his first career start in place of injured Mick Stoltenberg, was in on two of those stops.
With Wyoming solely relying on Allen, last week’s Mountain West Conference offensive player of the week, the Blackshirts responded.
“Josh Allen is a great quarterback. I mean, he’s a great player,” Williams said. “I just think Coach (Mark) Banker, he put us in the right position to make plays, and we were just able to do that. It was a blessing for us to be in the right spot at the right time to make plays.”
Banker saw enough of Allen’s strong arm on tape that he knew the sophomore, who missed most of last season because of injury, could pick apart Nebraska’s secondary if it didn’t press on the outside and make Allen throw over the top.
The Blackshirts succeeded, another sign of growth for a secondary that was hit hard by big plays last season.
“I think guys have just learned it’s a system,” Banker said. “The coverages they were used to playing in the past, the corners and the safeties, they were never really responsible for the one-on-one type of coverage.
“You’ve got to know how to play it. You don’t win at the line of scrimmage. You win at the top of the route, and that’s what they’ve started to figure out.”
As for the turnovers?
“It’s like a running tap,” Banker said. “You open it up and it just starts coming out, and you just hope it keeps going. Turnovers, to me, always come in bunches. It’s contagious.”
Defensive end Ross Dzuris got in on the action when he scooped up Allen’s errant backwards pass and returned the ball 9 yards to the Wyoming 1-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown.
“Coach (Trent) Bray is our pick-the-ball-up guy in practice,” Banker said. “That’s what Ross did. He just kept playing.”
The turnovers – Jones and Aaron Williams also had interceptions – helped Nebraska outscore Wyoming 28-0 in the fourth quarter, meaning the Huskers have outscored two foes by a combined 50-0 in the final period.
“It’s always good to be able to get turnovers and just get the morale up in the room,” Williams said. “You get guys to trust one another, trust communication, and just trust the defense. I think it’s helping us to mold well.”