LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Score one for the Nebraska defense. Actually, score two.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans returned first-quarter interceptions for touchdowns and the No. 22 Cornhuskers rebounded from a lackluster performance in their opener to make quick work of Southern Mississippi in a 56-13 win Saturday night.
With No. 18 UCLA visiting next week, it was critical for the Huskers (2-0) to create a positive vibe after they were skewered for 602 yards by Wyoming in a 37-34 win last week.
The Bruins beat Nebraska in Los Angeles last year, amassing 653 yards in the process. Don’t think coach Bo Pelini won’t remind his team about that stat over the next few days.
So, yes, the Huskers needed a feel-good performance, even if it was against a Southern Miss team that has the longest current losing streak in the FBS at 14 games.
“It was a big confidence boost,” defensive end Randy Gregory said. “We didn’t play that well last week. We got the win but weren’t proud of it.”
Nebraska limited the Golden Eagles (0-2) to 284 yards and intercepted four passes, with the first two picks going for early touchdowns.
Jean-Baptiste jumped in front of Rickey Bradley Jr. just as Allan Bridgford’s pass arrived on the third play of the game and ran it back 43 yards.
Evans put the Huskers up 21-3 with the first of his two interceptions, catching a ball tipped by Tyre’oune Holmes and going 22 yards to the end zone.
“That,” Evans said, “was all she wrote.”
Nebraska limited the Eagles to 62 yards rushing, but only 4 of those came before the fourth quarter. The Huskers had nine tackles for loss after having no stops behind the line of scrimmage against Wyoming.
“I thought we made good progress,” Pelini said.
What impressed Pelini most was that he saw a reduction in the number of missed tackles and missed assignments, and improved communication among his players.
“Our ability to make adjustments during the game was 100 fold better than it was a week ago,” he said.
Taylor Martinez threw for 170 yards and three touchdowns, Ameer Abdullah ran for 114 yards and two TDs and the Huskers finished with 285 yards rushing.
This game was all about Nebraska’s defense, though, and how it would respond to the harsh criticism it took after the Wyoming debacle.
The Huskers’ only lull came on Southern Miss’ first series of the second half. Bridgford’s 41-yard touchdown pass to Bradley made it 35-13.
“My biggest problem with the defense – and I addressed it with them on the sideline – is how we came out in that third quarter,” Pelini said. “To their credit, they responded to the challenge and got it righted in a hurry.”
After Bradley’s touchdown, Kenny Bell ran back the kickoff 63 yards, and Abdullah scored from 37 yards on the next play.
Evans intercepted Bridgford on the first play of Southern Miss’ following possession, and Martinez threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Sam Burtch to make it 49-13.
That was it for Martinez, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 170 yards. Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong Jr. quarterbacked the Huskers the rest of the way.
Nebraska’s two interception returns for touchdowns marked the first time the Huskers have had two defensive scores in a game since they had two picks for TDs against Idaho in 2010. It also was in that game against Idaho that Nebraska last had four interceptions in a game.
“I was disappointed in the way we played to start the football game,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. “Come to a tough place to play, start the opening series, get a first down and then turn it over – let alone, it leads to a score. Second week in a row we’ve done that early in the game. It really makes it difficult to come back.”
The Huskers tinkered with their defensive lineup, starting junior-college transfer Randy Gregory at end and freshmen Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry at linebacker. Nebraska hadn’t started a true freshman on defense since Evans in 2010.
“We base it on practice – who practices the best,” Pelini said. “Coming out of the week, we went with who we felt gave us the best chance to play like we want to play.”
Bridgford, who threw for 377 yards last week in a loss to Texas State, was 21 of 35 for 222 yards. But Bridgford and the Eagles, who turned over the ball six times last week, couldn’t overcome the four interceptions – the last one thrown by Nick Mullens.
The schedule originally called for Southern Miss to host the Huskers in Hattiesburg, Miss., but the Eagles agreed to move the game to Lincoln in exchange for $2.1 million. The teams play again in Lincoln in 2015.