LINCOLN — The Adidas T-shirt is appropriately black, and on it there’s a football player pointing at some unseen receiver. The cornerback is wearing a white chain with a red padlock.
Scrawled underneath the player, as if in white chalk: “Lockdown U.”
Nebraska cornerback Chris Jones wore that shirt Saturday afternoon after the Huskers’ 52-17 win over Wyoming. Jones had a fourth-quarter interception, right out of the textbook, a perfectly timed, step-in-front move. Kieron Williams wore the shirt, too. He had a tipped-ball interception he returned for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead in the third quarter after he traversed the width of the field and got a crushing block from another corner, Joshua Kalu.
Lockdown U — the mantra of Nebraska’s secondary in 2016, and a risky one, given last season’s back-end struggles.
“I feel like we really lived up to that name today,” Jones said. “We really did.”
“It’s always fun when you can compete and say, ‘You have an interception, I want one,’” Williams said.
“That’s what I love about our secondary,” linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said. “Confident.”
Those defensive backs will need every bit of confidence and every last inch of their vertical leap for the team they’ll face next weekend.
Oregon was on the lips of every Husker coach and player, including coach Mike Riley.
But, for one Saturday, against lesser Wyoming, the defensive backs showed off their ball skills. One year after being torched up and down the field, the group has seven interceptions in two games. Against Wyoming, the Huskers had five interceptions for the first time since 2010. Safety Nate Gerry, returning from his one-game suspension, had two.
Coupled with a fortuitous fumble recovery by defensive end Ross Dzuris, NU had six takeaways total — all in the second half, four in the fourth quarter — that busted open a tight contest that was otherwise marred by more Nebraska personal foul penalties and slipshod execution on offense.
“It kind of snowballed out of our reach,” Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen said.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm on the sideline,” NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “And everybody was talking the same thing: Finish. Finish. Finish. We stayed with it and it was awesome.”
In front of 89,895 at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska (2-0) had to stay with it because, for a second straight week, it let a Mountain West team hang around for three quarters.
Wyoming (1-1) was far from some juggernaut, converting just 2 of 10 third downs and badly missing two field goals. But with the Huskers’ running game stuck in neutral and the Huskers’ punt team still in misadventure mode, Nebraska led just 24-17 early in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Tommy Armstrong found wideout Jordan Westerkamp for a 34-yard touchdown. Against tight coverage, Westerkamp got a step on the man covering him, Armstrong floated the ball in a spot where only his best friend could catch it and Westerkamp laid out for the grab. It was Armstrong’s fifth completion of more than 30 yards on the day against a defense that made running difficult with aggressive “middle dogs” blitzes and a “kitchen sink” approach — but repeatedly dared NU to throw it deep.
“They’re called upon to go out there and make plays, definitely when a (defense) is stacking the box,” said Armstrong, who set the school record for career touchdown passes with 57 and received the game ball for his achievement. Armstrong threw for 377 yards, three touchdowns and one goal-line interception that Riley called “unnecessary.”
NU led 31-17 and braced for Wyoming’s answer. Allen — a strong-armed Cowboy who threw a perfect 35-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half — promptly threw a swing pass high and behind his intended target. That’s a fumble, and Dzuris picked up the pigskin treat and rumbled down to the Wyoming 1.
“I just kind of saw the ball and I realized nobody had blown the whistle,” Dzuris said. I-back Devine Ozigbo scored one play later for a 38-17 lead.
Nebraska then picked off Allen on three straight possessions. Gerry got two of those; after the first one, he taunted Allen by handing him the ball. Allen rifled it at Gerry’s back. Gerry got the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“I got up and thought it was the referee,” Gerry said.
Nevertheless, NU had crawled all the way inside Allen’s head. The fourth-quarter rout was on for the second straight week. Nebraska outscored Fresno State and Wyoming a combined 50-0 in the fourth quarter, giving the impression that the Huskers had coasted more than they did.
It’s possible that Oregon — a team Riley knows well from his days at Oregon State — won’t be as generous with the Huskers’ miscues.
Nebraska had a punt blocked in Game 1 and, in Game 2, punter Caleb Lightbourn freelanced a fake punt run that finished 6 yards short of the first down. Nebraska had two touchdowns called back by penalty Saturday. NU’s defense extended two Wyoming drives with personal fouls.
Oregon may not allow such rampant errors to go as unpunished as Fresno State and Wyoming did.
Husker coaches and players seem to know it, too. Some of their minds had already begun to drift toward the big nonconference tilt as the clock wound down against Wyoming.
Riley copped to thinking about it. How can he not? Oregon, the perpetual thorn in the side of his career, a team he’s 4-10 against, coming to Nebraska.
“You do have to get through those first two games to get to this one, and it is just kind of the natural flow of life in football,” Riley said. “When those games are looming, you can mess it up by losing one of those previous games or you can set it up by winning.”
Riley paused, sensing his excitement out in front of him.
“I am going to pull back here and say we need to clean some stuff up or we are not going to have a chance to beat Oregon,” Riley said, “But if we do, we will.”
Rose-Ivey, who had five tackles and a half-sack, held court with reporters out in the hall, smacking his hands together.
“This is a big game next week, you know what I mean?” he said. “We can’t shy away from that. If we want to be who we want to be this year, put it on the table. It’s a big game next week. What are we going to do? It’s our house. What are we going to do? That’s the challenge this week, and I’m excited. I’m excited to see what guys do, how guys step up and just keep rolling.”
A plus-seven turnover margin through two games can’t hurt.