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For Nebraska football, this looks like it will be the week ... the week when Husker coaches finally have the confidence to bestow a time-honored rite, when they believe the young, the restless and the inexperienced have come of age and deserve something they've been wanting since fall camp began ... Blackshirts to wear in practice and to carry with them every day the rest of the season.
Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini held a Blackshirt up in the locker room Saturday after No. 13 Nebraska out-schemed, outslugged and outperformed No. 9 Michigan State, 24-3, at Memorial Stadium, creating another emotional postgame gathering that will match up well with those Rose-colored glasses players now wear in their minds after delivering their most complete game of the season.
It was solid enough to make anyone ask three important questions:
How ironic is it that Blackshirts are expected to come out in time for Halloween?
How ironic is it that they've been earned upstaging the nation's second-best defense?
How ironic is it that a walk-on from Loomis, Neb., just may be wearing one of them?
Thorell Set the Tone and Started the Surge
Lance Thorell, after all, is the one that set the tone, started the surge and established the character for the Blackshirts to emulate Saturday, didn't he? I mean, the game was only six plays old when Thorell, making his second straight start at strong side linebacker, intercepted his first pass in the 48 games he's played at Nebraska, and was it a doozy.
Michigan State faced a third-and-five situation from its own 46-yard line, and MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins tried to connect with his favorite receiver, B.J. Cunningham, a stud who had caught passes in 41 straight games and, according to Nebraska coaches, is destined to be playing on Sundays instead of Saturdays.
As the teams lined up before the play, Thorell looked back at fellow walk-on, good friend and senior safety Austin Cassidy, who flashed his arms and told him what was coming. The second the ball was within inches of going into Cunningham's glue-like grip, Thorell stepped in front of him, ripped the ball right out of his waiting arms and weaved 26 yards to MSU's 25-yard line.
Cunningham, who did not catch a pass in the entire game, hustled and recovered in time to slap the ball out of Thorell's hands, but it went out-of-bounds and Nebraska's first touchdown drive was launched by a walk-on who's waited five seasons to experience such a magical moment.
"In a lot of games like this, a lot of it comes down to will," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "That's a spot where two guys have a shot at the football and he came away with it and made a big play. I thought Lance played a heck of a football game today."
A Peso, a Nickel, a Walk-on and Now, a Catalyst
Thorell has been called a peso, a nickel and a walk-on, and Saturday he added another moniker ... "a catalyst" because he was a game-changer when the nationally televised showdown was only a few minutes old, and he contributed four tackles as it wore on. Thorell was the substance that started a chain reaction that never fizzled. He was, in fact, the first heroic act in a day that saw everyone grow and reinforce everyone else.
Last weekend, Cousins was the talk of college football when he buried Wisconsin, but Saturday he suffered through an 11-of-27 passing performance that netted only 86 yards. And Thorell can take great pride in knowing he set the tone for such a superlative defensive effort. He ignited the confidence on the field, and his interception lit the fire for the jubilation in the stands.
The Pelini brothers, Bo and Carl, have been insisting all season that Nebraska focuses on a process, and improvement is part of the process. They've been trying to prepare the Blackshirts to know and understand what they're up against, so they can play relaxed, have fun and show the enthusiasm that great defenses show.
Well, Saturday was Exhibit A of the product they believe in, and now Nebraska has four more regular-season opportunities to continue down that same path - Northwestern, at Penn State, at Michigan and Iowa. As pleased as Bo was in his postgame analysis, he mentioned several times how it's still a work in progress and how "there's still a lot more out there" for this young defense to comprehend, so they can compete even more fully.
Cassidy Said Players Simplified it for Themselves
Cassidy says Saturday was the kind of performance the defense has been waiting for all season. "Before the game, we talked - just us guys - and we made it real simple for ourselves. We said the defensive line was going to get after the quarterback, linebackers are going to stop the run and the DB's are going to take care of the wide receivers. I don't get paid to coach, but I think we did a pretty good job of that today."
The thoroughness of the effort can all be traced back to preparation and knowing and understanding what's coming at them. "When I ran off the field for the last time," Cassidy said, "Coach Bo just grabbed me and said, 'Hey, that's what happens when you prepare the way that we should every week.' It's easy to defend a team when you know what they're doing. Judging by the formations they came out with and where their wide receivers were split or the down-and-distance, we knew exactly what was going to happen, and I think that showed today."
No wonder Carl Pelini said this week is the time for Blackshirts to be awarded. Highly scrutinized film study will continue to be the benchmark, of course, but the results and the intangibles are indisputable. The Blackshirts aren't playing scared anymore. "We're going after guys," Carl said. And the pride of an historic season may very well ride on the mystique of those Men in Black.
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