LINCOLN, Neb. — At long last, Nebraska's defense turned in a Blackshirt-worthy performance.
Hard-to-please coach Bo Pelini said he actually thought the Cornhuskers were good enough against Northwestern the week before to merit the awarding of the iconic black practice jerseys traditionally worn by the team's defensive starters.
The players wouldn't accept them because they thought they could play still better — and they certainly did Saturday night in a 23-9 win over Michigan, holding the Wolverines to no touchdowns and 188 total yards. The win gave the No. 21 Huskers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) a share of first place in the Legends Division with Michigan, but Nebraska owns the tiebreaker.
Afterward, defensive end Eric Martin met with reporters while modeling the Blackshirt that was hanging in his stall when the team entered the locker room after the game.
“I'm going to go home and sleep in it,” he said.
“Blackshirts” has long been known throughout college football as the alternate name for Nebraska's defense. It started in 1964 under coach Bob Devaney, who wanted to make it easier to identify his defensive players during practices.
Devaney sent an assistant coach to a sporting goods store to buy practice jerseys for the defense. Unable to get enough jerseys of one color to outfit the entire squad, the decision was made to give black ones to the first-string players.
The starters wear the black tops at practice and under their jerseys during games.
Devaney, Tom Osborne, Frank Solich and Bill Callahan would hand out the treasured tops before the season. Pelini waits until he believes his defensive starters have proved themselves worthy on the game field. One year it took until November.
It looked as though the defense might not get any Blackshirts this year after allowing 653 yards to UCLA the second game of the season and 498 yards, 371 rushing, in a 63-38 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 6.
Pelini thought the time was right after the Huskers held Northwestern to 301 total yards, shut down Kain Colter and forced 10 three-and-outs in a 29-28 victory.
But senior linebacker Will Compton, speaking on behalf of the defense, told Pelini to hold off.
“It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have,” Pelini said. “They didn't want them last week. They said they hadn't earned them and we'll revisit it after the Michigan game. I think they earned them.”
So does defensive end Cameron Meredith.
“Ohio State was a tragedy,” he said, “and we had to prove ourselves before we got them. We said after this game, if we prove ourselves, we could wear the Blackshirts. They aren't just given out.”
The Huskers kept Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson under control until he left the game with an injury to his right elbow late in the first half. Robinson finished with 46 yards on 10 carries and was 6 of 11 passing for 55 yards.
Backup quarterback Russell Bellomy wilted when the Huskers turned up the pressure on him. He was sacked twice and intercepted three times. Michigan managed only 58 yards in the second half.
Redshirt freshman David Santos made a team-leading 10 tackles in his first start, and fellow linebackers Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher added eight and seven, respectively.
Ciante Evans and Martin had sacks, and the Huskers made a total of nine tackles for losses.
Because of the meltdowns against UCLA and Ohio State, Nebraska's season defensive statistics are modest. But the last two games the Huskers have given up and average of 137.5 yards rushing, 244 total and have allowed the opponent to convert just 10 of 35 third downs. “It's come a long way,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said of his unit's progress since the Ohio State game. “By no means is today perfect. That's the fun aspect of this job — coming to work and trying to get better.”