LINCOLN, Neb. -- Larry Asante arrived on the field Saturday blinking away tears as he prepared for his final home game.
As he left the field, the Nebraska senior safety again was dabbing at his eyes.
But after a big performance in the Cornhuskers’ 17-3 North Division-clinching victory, Asante was trying to get rid of the remnants of a post-game Gatorade shower he and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini got along the sidelines.
“He was giving me a hug, telling me how much he loved me and how far along I’d come as a player,” Asante said, chuckling at the memory. “Then out of nowhere, I got dumped. But I didn’t get mad. It was joyous. I was happy.”
So were the Cornhuskers, who rode a gritty defensive effort into the Dec. 5 Big 12 championship game for the first time since 2006.
“We want to be known as a hard-hitting, hard-nosed defense,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “One where everybody is making tackles and making things happen.”
Asante keyed a stellar defensive performance by Nebraska which limited the Wildcats to a field goal on their first drive and no more scoring after that. It was the 10th time in 11 games that a Nebraska opponent has scored 17 points or less, including the Cornhuskers’ last five opponents.
His big night included an interception and a forced fumble which turned away KSU’s best scoring opportunity when he hammered KSU’s Keithen Valentine, causing a fumble at the Nebraska 1.
Saturday’s triumphant performance is a remarkable transformation from where Pelini inherited the team less than two years ago.
To call that group defensive waifs might be an insult to all of the lost souls who wander the Earth.
The missed tackles and busted coverages that marked the Kevin Cosgrove era are nothing but a bad memory for those seniors who remained in the most dramatic transition in Nebraska’s history.
That team allowed six opponents to score at least 40 points on them as they finished in the bottom ten nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense, total defense, turnover margin and sacks. The Cornhuskers were torched for 76 and 65 points in losses in two of their final three games in that lost season.
“They’ve come a long way in the last two years,” Pelini said. “When I got here, especially the guys on defense, they were written off and told how bad they were.”
But from those humble origins, Pelini nurtured the confidence and got this group to believe in his methods.
The result has been a run of games just like Saturday night.
“They kept getting better,” Pelini said. “Now, look at how far they have come. It’s been fun to watch.”
Many of those same players were integral contributors to Nebraska’s huge defensive effort. After KSU produced a field goal on its opening possession, the Wildcats were turned away on their final 10 possessions without a score. Included in that run were two possessions inside the Nebraska 20-yard line and three other stops at the Nebraska 27, 33 and 41-yard lines.
The reason for that toughness was instilled by Pelini and his older brother, Carl, who serves as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator.
“We take it personal as a unit. We don’t want to give up any points,” Asante said. “We didn’t have that culture back then. They’ve taught us how to play every play like it’s our last. And we wanted to go out there the right way.”
Suh, who finished in his final home game with nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes broken up, said that Pelini's coaching has been the major reason for the change.
"We've grown tremendously, but there still is a lot of work to do,” Suh said. “His message when he first got here has been embraced by everybody. We’re not to what he expects from us, but I think we’re on a good path.”
Asante might be the best example of Pelini’s transformation. He came to Nebraska as one of the nation’s top 10 junior college prospects. But he looked lost in Cosgrove’s defense and there were some early thoughts he couldn’t play in Pelini's defense.
His seven tackles Saturday enabled him to tie for third on Nebraska’s career list for tackles.
There were still some areas of concern, like a sputtering offense that will never be confused with the Cornhuskers’ glory era when Eric Crouch, Scott Frost and Co. wreaked havoc across the Big 12.
The Cornhuskers are built to win games like Saturday’s battle over Kansas State. They will challenge Texas, but likely don’t have the firepower to dent the Longhorns’ emerging defense.
But the recent play of the Blackshirts will give them a puncher’s chance of sticking close to Texas, who might be looking ahead to their BCS title game prospects rather than worrying about the Cornhuskers next month.
“The way we played seems like it’s a recurring theme,” Pelini said. “We still have a long way to go, but there’s still a lot out there. Our kids are hungry and it’s on to the next challenge for us.”