WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Everyone wanted a piece of Randy Gregory earlier this week, so much so that the Nebraska defensive end could only say "probably around 15" when asked how many friends and family members he knew Saturday in the Ross-Ade Stadium stands.
A short while earlier, he had looked right back at home while walking off the field, serenaded with a chorus of "GRE-GO-RY!" cheers by a whole lot more than 15 of the Cornhusker faithful, thousands of whom had turned this venue into Memorial Stadium East and waited until the end to soak in every minute of a defensive performance long in the making.
Gregory's homecoming was a success on all fronts, with the nearby Fishers, Ind., native making plays that had to have made any locals who remained for the second half shake their heads at the one who got away.
The one-time Purdue commit wreaked havoc on the Boilermakers, forcing and recovering a fumble and recording two sacks, including a safety, in Nebraska's commanding 44-7 win here. He added another sack in the fourth quarter, too, but that one was brought back because of an offsides penalty.
Forgive him for being a little anxious. This was his first time delivering blows to the home team inside this building.
"It's big. We've always been known as the Blackshirts, and I think the coaches, I know I have, and some of the other guys were waiting for us to really play together and start playing like the Blackshirts that everyone knows," Gregory said. "These last few weeks are big for us -- how we want to play for the rest of the season."
To be clear, this was against the Boilermakers, who had beaten only FCS Indiana State this year, who had entered Saturday with the nation's No. 117 offense -- 112th in scoring -- and who had just turned over control to quarterback Danny Etling.
But the Huskers did not make life easy for the true freshman in his first career start, picking off Etling once and limiting him to 14-for-35 passing for 184 yards -- 55 of which came on a touchdown pass to DeAngelo Yancey with 39 seconds left, ruining Nebraska's shot at its first Big Ten shutout.
"I thought it was great," head coach Bo Pelini said of the defense. "We really were about three quarters and about 14-and-a-half minutes, but that last one was unfortunate."
Still, Nebraska weathered the early-season storm of fielding a young defense and has now opened Big Ten play by holding consecutive opponents to less than 20 points, with a bye week and then a trip to Minnesota on the docket before a Nov. 2 Legends Division rendezvous with Northwestern.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis knew this was going to be a work-in-progress from the get-go, and he has found himself liking what he sees a whole lot more.
"On track," Papuchis said when asked if the unit had exceeded expectations so far. "I think when you look at some of the games, there were some things that we would've liked to have done better, but I think we're kind of where I thought we would be about half-way through. And being 2-0 in the Big Ten and 5-1 overall -- obviously our expectations are always to be perfect, but I feel pretty good about where we're at."
He can thank Gregory for that, with the defensive coordinator saying that players like the 6-foot-6, 255-pound end make the staff better coaches.
Gregory's first big play came mid-way through the second quarter, turning the momentum by drilling Purdue rung back Dalyn Dawkins and recovering the loose ball, just one play after the Huskers watched corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste get tossed on a controversial targeting penalty. Ameer Abdullah rushed for a 28-yard score on the next play to make it 21-0. With the lead up to 28-0 mid-way late in the third, Gregory chased Etling a whopping 17 yards back into the end zone for a safety.
Three Etling snaps later, and the rookie was again on the ground because of Gregory, this time for an 11-yard loss.
"Randy's kind of an even-keeled guy," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "He's just kind of business as usual, and so that's what you want in a guy. You don't want a guy too high, you don't want a guy getting too low. And I think that helps with him being a mature guy, an older guy, even though it's his first year."
Two years at Arizona Western Community College, coupled with a Purdue coaching change, placed Gregory on Nebraska's side here Saturday, playing some 70 miles or so away from home.
Ron Kellogg III stood by after the game when Gregory made a late exit from the locker room and was met by a throng of reporters, with the quarterback jokingly begging the day's star for a shout out.
Gregory had slightly more important people to please nearby before heading back to Lincoln.
"I think there are a few of them over at the buses right now I'm trying to get to," Gregory said of his family members. "I didn't see them in the stands, but I knew they were out there supporting me, and it was big for me."