LINCOLN — Chase Rome might not have been ready for the assignment four weeks ago.
He definitely wasn't eight weeks back.
Now, with Baker Steinkuhler shelved, the Nebraska defensive line shorthanded and Wisconsin ready to come full speed ahead, Rome has no choice.
“You know they're going to pound the rock at Wisconsin,” Rome said. “That's what they do, and they're good at doing it.
“I'm not going to lie to you and say I can just play an average game. Of course I want to go in and tear it up, especially with it being a championship game. But at the same time, you don't want to try to play outside yourself and end up doing nothing.”
Rome's importance to the Huskers changed last Friday when Steinkuhler suffered a season-ending knee injury at Iowa. The bottom line is that somebody will have to step up at defensive tackle for the Big Ten title game Saturday night and the bowl game a month later.
And why not Rome?
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder is late in his sophomore season, free of some nagging injuries and has played a little bit more each of the past few weeks — and also put some more distance between his brief September departure from the team.
“I've played more football, and there's no substitute for that,” Rome said. “I'm nowhere near perfect or great or anything, but the more you've seen the easier things kind of get, and there's not as much of the butterflies and the worries. You just remember it's all football and just to play and play hard.”
Nebraska likely will continue to use defensive end Cameron Meredith on the inside. There also will be a need for Thad Randle and maybe Kevin Williams to contribute, but Randle has been fighting more injury trouble than anybody.
“No matter who we throw into the football game, we anticipate and expect them to execute and perform as well as the guy who went down,” NU assistant coach Rick Kaczenski said. “Chase has done a good job preparing. It's unfortunate for Baker, we feel bad for him, but the next guy's got to step up.”
Rome has 17 tackles in nine games, but six of those came at Iowa (one solo, five assists). He maintains that he won't feel any different pressure or responsibility with Steinkuhler out, and that everybody on the defensive front will have to just “trust each other to get our jobs done.”
Rome had to rebuild some trust after leaving the team three games into the season. He returned a week later after NU head coach Bo Pelini said he “got through some issues.”
First, Rome said, it took an appearance before the team Unity Council, and then he just tried to go back to work.
“Some people still adjust to it differently, and I respect that,” he said. “I brought it upon myself. But I was excited that the guys who are my in-and-out, every-day-kind-of-guys were able to move on and it's over.
“It wasn't right of me, but at the same time if that's what it took for me to grow maturation-wise and mentally to where I am, then so be it. God has a plan for everything.”
Kaczenski said the reasons behind Rome's departure aren't important now and that all that matters is the staff knew what was happening. Kaczenski also said it was a good example of Pelini being willing to help a player through a matter.
“It's just college kids, and they deal with a lot of stuff,” Kaczenski said. “They're not in Iraq by any means or anything like that, but there's a lot of pressure on them between football and school and social life and family and all those other things. Sometimes you forget that these guys are 18 to 22 years old. He just hit a bump in the road.”
Kaczenski said it was “maybe a team decision more than anything” to welcome Rome back. Senior defensive end Eric Martin said it was pretty simple what Rome had to do from there.
“Just go out and work hard,” Martin said. “Get back to where he was when he left, and earn our trust just by doing your job, playing within the defense, not trying to be an individual out there. Play for the guy next to you. That was it.”
In some ways, Rome is playing for Steinkuhler now. He's finishing the season for one of the players who had helped him with some of his development in the past year.
Steinkuhler no doubt leaves a huge hole on the field. But what people don't see, Rome said, is Steinkuhler in the meeting room and on the practice field, limiting the complaining, holding teammates accountable and pulling everybody along.
“I think you just kind of miss that presence,” Rome said. “As little as he says, when he does say something, everyone listens.”
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