Nebraska and Oklahoma have been laying it on the line all season. That would be the defensive line.
The Cornhuskers’ Ndamukong Suh and the 20th-ranked Sooners’ Gerald McCoy are the best known of the men in the middle, but they’ve gotten plenty of help as their teams’ defenses have developed into two of the nation’s best.
No doubt, the boys up front will be a focal point when the teams meet Saturday night.
“It’s the battle of the best,” Suh said. “We want to prove we’re the best.”
The Huskers (5-3, 2-2 Big 12) have their strongest defensive front since All-Americans Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom were winning national championships in the 1990s. The Sooners (5-3, 3-1) have a line comparable to those headed up by All-American Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek earlier this decade.
The central figure at Nebraska is Suh, who has 13 tackles for a loss, five sacks, 14 quarterback hurries and a team-leading seven pass breakups.
McCoy, a fellow Lombardi Award semifinalist and Outland Trophy candidate, hasn’t put up the same numbers as Suh, but he can be just as disruptive. Twelve of his 19 tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage, and he leads the Sooners with eight hurries.
Suh and McCoy are projected to be top 10 picks in next spring’s NFL draft, and they’ve been treated as such by drawing double-teams from opposing offenses. All that’s done is provide opportunities for others.
Last week, Suh’s linemate, Jared Crick, recorded a school-record five sacks and a career-high 13 tackles in the Huskers’ 20-10 win at Baylor. Suh wasn’t exactly quiet: He had five tackles and a sack.
Crick earned two national defensive player of the week awards for his performance against Baylor, just as Suh did for his dominating showing against Missouri a month ago.
“We were hoping throughout the season that if you double-team Suh, I’m going to go at it and try and make plays,” Crick said. “After the last game, I would hope that teams would kind of start shading my way more and let Suh have the opportunity to make plays.”
Defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner also have done their part. Allen has three sacks and nine tackles behind the line and Turner two sacks and seven tackles for a loss.
“It’s going to be a huge battle up front,” OU offensive lineman Stephen Good said. “Two big guys and the D-ends are pretty big, too. We’re just going to have to come off the ball and move our feet.”
Nebraska’s offensive line will get its biggest test of the season going against McCoy, Adrian Taylor and ends Jeremy Beal and Auston English.
“They’re very aggressive up front,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Obviously, to play good offense you have to have some control of the line of scrimmage. To me, that’s where it starts. If we’re able to do that we’ll be able to have some success.”
Taylor, who has 2.5 sacks and 18 tackles, has clogged the middle for Oklahoma along with McCoy and, according to his coaches and teammates, has been playing some of the best football of his career in recent weeks.
Beal has come on strong this season and earned the nickname “Sackmaster” from his teammates. He has at least one sack in five of the last six games and leads the team with 8.5. He made a career-high 12 stops in a loss to Texas.
Beal and English each have 18 career sacks and share the No. 10 spot on Oklahoma’s all-time chart.
Beal said if opponents focus too much on McCoy and Taylor, he and English and the OU linebackers will make them pay.
“Not taking away from them, they’re two outstanding players,” Beal said. “But we work as a unit and we do things as a unit. That’s how it is.
“If one guy is taking on a double-team, it’s easy for the rest of the D-line. You can’t double-team everybody. If you get a one-on-one, it makes it that much easier for everybody else.”