LINCOLN — Dick Butkus and Chris Spielman played linebacker in the Big Ten. Pat Fitzgerald and LaVar Arrington, too.
Pick a position that represents this league over the past 50 years and linebacker may be No. 1.
Nebraska kicked Michigan in the teeth Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, holding the short-handed Wolverines to 188 yards. The defensive line harassed Michigan quarterbacks. The defensive backs covered Michigan receivers. But linebackers were the story.
Two of them, in particular. One old, one new. Both unlikely heroes.
Sean Fisher is a senior from Omaha who has experienced the worst of college football. A devastating injury. Long days stuck on the sideline. And worst of all, catcalls from Husker fans. For Fisher, Saturday night was redemption achieved.
“When you consider the gravity of the game plus how I feel about my own performance, it was a special night,” Fisher said.
David Santos is a redshirt freshman from Texas who hasn't experienced much college football at all. Coaches have hoped for his emergence. Fans have waited for his emergence. For Santos, Saturday night was promise fulfilled.
“We just wanted to show everybody what the defense was really about,” Santos said. “I think we kind of made a statement tonight.”
Fisher had seven tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage. Santos finished with 10 tackles, including one for loss.
Who were these guys? And what happened to Nebraska's leaky defense that gave up 49 defensive points three weeks ago?
When defensive coordinator John Papuchis came into work the morning after Ohio State, “I felt like a loser. I felt horrible. It was probably the lowest point of my career.”
He turned on the film and witnessed players making head-scratching mistakes. Like a defensive end change his technique in defending a quarterback counter.
“Things that I've been watching our guys do for four or five years that I'd never seen happen. ... And then when things started going bad, it snowballed and guys started trying to do other people's jobs and it got out of hand.”
Coaches spent most of the bye week “searching for answers,” Papuchis said.
“I've been with Bo for eight years. At what point did things take a turn in a negative direction? We started searching for answers on how to make it better and maybe we found some.”
One of the key points of emphasis, Papuchis said, was being more aggressive against the run. They determined they had good cover corners.
“Make people beat you throwing the rock,” Papuchis said.
Michigan's passing game was a mess. Denard Robinson did OK — 6-for-11 for 55 yards. But his replacement, Russell Bellomy, threw as many completions as interceptions. His struggles opened the door for Nebraska linebackers to attack.
“In some of the ways we structured our coverages, we let our linebackers be gapped out, meaning they had to play a single gap,” Papuchis said. “And when you're gapped out, you can be aggressive.”
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Santos, who had only six career tackles entering Saturday, gives Nebraska explosiveness it has lacked since Lavonte David's departure. He was “starting to make a pretty good jump toward the end of fall camp,” Papuchis said.
“Then you got into games where he was really a base Will and he's really come a long way as a nickel Will. He's starting to make that push to being the guy we thought he could be.”
Fisher's big night required more patience.
After contributing as a redshirt freshman in 2009, he broke his leg during the 2010 fall camp and missed the entire season. When he came back, he looked bad more often than good.
“Any criticism of Fish is unfair from this perspective,” Papuchis said. “I think if you asked Bo or Mike Ekeler, two years ago prior to his ankle injury ... we thought he was going to be a great player for us.
“He got hurt. He came back and wasn't quite the same guy a year ago. This is more the Fish we expected to see a couple years ago.”
Last winter, doctors removed a plate and screws from his leg, said Fisher, a 4.0 student in pre-med. He immediately started feeling more explosive. Yet as a Buck linebacker, he rarely saw the field in nonconference play. Too many spread offenses.
Saturday night he not only played Buck, but also rotated with Will Compton as the Mike linebacker in the nickel defense.
“It just feels good to be out there playing and feeling like myself,” Fisher said.
Nebraska's first-team defense turned down the Blackshirts last week, believing they needed another good day to deserve them. After a 23-9 win, the practice jerseys were waiting in the locker room. A few players celebrated by slipping them on. Not Fisher.
“I think I'll wait 'til Monday,” he said.
It's been a long road for No. 42 and his defense. What's another couple days.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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>> Video: Husker postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust: