Not only was the University of Wisconsin football team's defense facing its stiffest challenge to date this season, it was doing so Saturday night without all hands on deck.
It didn't seem to matter much during the Badgers' 48-17 victory over Nebraska in a Big Ten Conference opener at Camp Randall Stadium.
Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and the high-powered UW offense stole the show - what's new? - but the defense did its share to deliver an eye-opening victory for the Badgers (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten).
After a rocky start, UW's defense forced three turnovers that led to touchdowns and helped the Badgers turn a seven-point second-quarter deficit into a rout.
"I don't say this often, but I love our defense," UW junior center Peter Konz said. "Those guys are just fantastic competitors."
Nebraska (4-1, 0-1) finished with season lows in points, total yards (335) and rushing yards (159) in its first league game as a member of the Big Ten.
Linebacker Mike Taylor, safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus had interceptions for the Badgers, who were playing without three preferred starters: Cornerback Devin Smith is out for the season with a foot injury, safety Shelton Johnson missed the game with a bruised calf suffered last week against South Dakota, and defensive end David Gilbert broke his foot in practice Tuesday, had surgery Wednesday and will miss four-to-six weeks.
It got worse for the Badgers in the second quarter when Dezmen Southward, Johnson's replacement, left the game briefly with an injury. His expected backup, Adam Hampton, injured a hamstring in practice this week, so UW turned to fourth-stringer Josh Peprah.
But the Badgers didn't flinch. While Wilson, Ball and Co. were putting up points, the defense was either causing turnovers or forcing punts.
"It's huge," UW middle linebacker Chris Borland said of the defense's depth. "And you're going to need it in this league."
The takeaways were huge, but so was the defense's ability to slow Nebraska's vaunted running attack. The Cornhuskers were averaging 272.5 rushing yards per game but had just 106 going into the fourth quarter.
Nebraska's top tailback, Rex Burkhead, finished with 18 carries for 96 yards, but most of that damage was done after the game was already out of reach.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had five runs of 37 yards in his first four games and was averaging 6.7 per carry entering the game, had a long run of 11 and finished with 61 yards on 20 carries, a 3.0 average.
The Cornhuskers were 10-0 when Martinez rushes for at least 50 yards. Make that 10-1.
"He didn't gash us," UW linebacker Chris Borland said.
One of the UW defense's goals is to hold opponents under 100 rushing yards each game. The Cornhuskers topped that mark, but they averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt and were held 113.2 yards below their season total.
"We're not going to get a plus on our board, but we understand how good they are," Borland said. "We did make some mistakes tonight, but we did a pretty good job against that running attack."
There was cause for concern early in the game after UW gave up some big plays in the passing game. Martinez's throwing motion is anything but pretty, but it didn't need to be to take advantage of coverage breakdowns by the Badgers.
Martinez completed five of his first seven passes for 89 yards on Nebraska's first three series, leading the Cornhuskers to a 14-7 lead. UW twice blew coverages, leading to completions of 29 and 28 yards.
At that point, UW coach Bret Bielema called his entire defense together.
"I was really frustrated because some guys had blown some things that we did all week in practice," Bielema said. "I said, ‘Fellas, the only reason they've got points on the board right now is because of us.
"From that point forward, it was just calmness and the game slowed down for them. I think they started to panic a little bit and we had to slow the game down for them."
Nebraska's next six possessions ended as follows: punt, interception, interception, missed field goal, interception and punt.
"We didn't get rattled," said Taylor, who had a game-high 14 tackles. "We just came back, made corrections and did what we had to do."
Right up until the clock read 0:00, in fact. Facing a second-and-goal at the UW 1, Nebraska called a timeout with 12 seconds left to try to get in the end zone and make the final score look more respectable. But Taylor and defensive tackle Ethan Hemer stuffed Martinez for no gain.
It was one final statement for the UW defense.
"We stepped up when we needed to," Henry said.