LINCOLN — To be honest, Nebraska safety P.J. Smith thought the Husker coaching staff was being a little unfair last week in practice.
Not with the 10 pushups that followed every time an NU defender dropped a potential interception. They could live with that small punishment for their mistakes.
Smith said the beef was with the ruling on a few.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “A couple times they said it was a drop, but we maybe had just one hand on it and were trying to knock it down.”
What wasn’t being disputed was the fact that Nebraska needed to start bagging some interceptions after coming up with just three in its first seven games. the missed chances — the drops, more bluntly — had to stop.
“We’re always in position to make plays on the ball, and we either don’t come up with it or we get a PBU (pass broken up),” NU nickel back Ciante Evans said. “But I think we really honed in this week and tried to take the ball away.”
They did against Michigan, whether or not it had anything to do with the practice pushups. Nebraska intercepted backup quarterback Russell Bellomy three times — after Denard Robinson was injured in the first half — to double its season total in a span of six second-half possessions.
It’s about time, Evans said, but also just a start.
“It takes some pressure off, but we’ve still got to come back and do it next week,” he said. “We can’t just have three this week and then go out there and just have seven PBUs and no interceptions (at Michigan State). You’ve got to be able to take the ball away and give our offense as many chances as we can to score.”
The interceptions made a difference in the 23-9 win against Michigan. NU turned pickoffs by Smith and Daimion Stafford into 10 points, then ran out the clock after Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s pickoff in the end zone with 6:54 left in the game.
Both Smith and Jean-Baptiste had dropped potential interceptions the week before at Northwestern.
“The guys made the plays in practice,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “It’s hard to somehow put a finger on why you drop balls in a game.”
So the Nebraska staff felt like it had to do something new while keeping it an emphasis all week. Coaches came up with the idea that each drop in practice would result in a stoppage in play and every Husker defender — not just the 11 on the field — going to the ground for 10 pushups.
The coaches, too.
“I needed some more workout anyway,” Papuchis said.
Smith said Papuchis did some shaping on his arms. Assistant Rick Kaczenski joked that it was a lot easier for him because he was in better shape than the rest.
“But, no, it was good,” Kaczenski said, laughing. “I think we could all use a little bit more cardio and some pushups. We might have to add in some sit-ups this week.”
In a perfect world, all those interceptions would be made — in practice and games — and the pushups wouldn’t be necessary. But drops have been a lingering issue. Nebraska is coming off a 2011 season when it managed just 10 interceptions (after totaling 19 in 2010 and 20 in ’09 when it won Big 12 North titles).
Until that stat trend reverses, Smith suspects that the pushups probably will continue.
“Any time you stress something, you get what you stress, and that was something we stressed this week,” Kaczenski said. “It really comes down to the players, and those guys did a heck of a job playing for us (Saturday night).”
Smith’s interception included a 53-yard return after a pass ricocheted into the air off a diving Vincent Smith. Stafford benefited from Bellomy feeling pressure from Baker Steinkuhler and badly underthrowing Jeremy Gallon.
Jean-Baptiste, a former receiver, then snagged a Bellomy deep ball in what amounted to a much tougher catch than one of the opportunities he had the week before.
“I’ve dropped a couple, and it was in my head,” Jean-Baptiste said. “So I just wanted to go out there and play hard and get one. Ciante helped me on knocking my man off his route, so he gave me a chance on getting it, too.”
Nebraska still ranks last in the Big Ten in turnover margin (minus-eight). Smith said it still hurts to look back at the ones that have gotten away.
“We’ve just got to have those turnovers,” he said. “It’s huge. That’s just like you miss a tackle and it goes for a big play. You miss a turnover and you could have stopped them from scoring a touchdown or got the ball back for our offense.”
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