October 25, 2008
Nate Swift has put in a lot of miles as a Nebraska Cornhusker. Now he has reached a milestone.
Swift has caught more passes than any Husker in history, having eclipsed the legendary Johnny Rodgers on the all-time charts Saturday during Nebraska's 32-20 win over Baylor.
Swift overtook Johnny the Jet with a 9-yard touchdown catch from Joe Ganz late in the third quarter to record his 144th career reception. It was an appropriately big play. The score gave Nebraska a 24-20 lead in a game it needed to win to keep its momentum and its bowl hopes alive. A few minutes later, Swift finished off the Bears with a 53-yard touchdown reception.
Swift has been a rock of steadiness for a program that has fluctuated more during the past four seasons than the Dow Jones average. It has not been an audacious run; if it were not for Swift, Nebraska might have sunk below the level of mediocrity.
The senior from Hutchinson, Minn., has seen the rise and fall and the rise of the Big Red football program while catching passes from three different starting quarterbacks in his four-year career. Swift has benefited from four years of West Coast offense, which uses the short passing game to control the ball (but don't forget, Jerry Tagge threw a lot in the early 70s when Rodgers played), and he's played four years to Rodgers' three.
Swift rode a swell of optimism with the rest of the Huskers as they finished strong in 2005, his freshman year. He was a big reason the Huskers won their last three games. He led the team that year with 45 catches, 641 yards and seven touchdown receptions, and had a 14-yard touchdown catch from Zac Taylor in the Huskers' 32-28 Alamo Bowl win over Michigan.
In 2006, he was part of the Huskers' rise to the top of the Big 12 North, catching 22 passes for just two touchdowns, and his 13-yard touchdown reception from Taylor finished an impressive drive to open the game against Auburn, although the Huskers did almost nothing on offense the rest of the game. The arrival of Maurice Purify in 2006 strengthened the Husker receiving corps and cut into Swift's statistics, and he seemed to fade into the background for awhile.
Last season, while the Huskers nosedived to a 5-7 finish, Swift temporarily came down with the same bad case of drop-itis that affected all Nebraska receivers. He had 36 catches and three TDs, while Purify and Marlon Lucky caught most of the passes.
This season, though, Swift has been nothing but sure-handed. In fact, he's had his hands all over the offense as the Huskers have already matched their win total from last year. He's already grabbed 44 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories. He's also helped put some danger back into the Husker return game, having given the Big Red their first punt return for a touchdown since DeJuan Groce in 2002.
Swift caught a career-high 11 passes against Baylor, and the Huskers needed them all to hold off a Baylor team that's led by speedy freshman quarterback Robert Griffin, who graduated high school early and won the Big 12 400-meter hurdle title last spring while his old classmates were going to their senior prom. Griffin and wide receiver Kendall Wright, another true freshman, had the Nebraska defense on its heels during the first half, piling up 234 yards and 20 points at intermission. Griffin made the Husker defense look downright slow at times, beating Cody Glenn (who may be Nebraska's top athlete on defense) to the corner on more than one occasion.
But things changed in the second half, and that's one of the most encouraging things about Bo Pelini and his coaching staff, who seem to be able to make the necessary strategic adjustments while keeping their team's intensity at an acceptable level. The Huskers held Baylor to no points and 116 total yards in the last two quarters of play, and although they got no takeaways, they recorded three sacks, seven tackles for loss and scored on a safety. Junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who leads the Big 12 in tackles by an interior lineman, is beginning to fulfill his promise and disrupt enemy offenses.
The Husker defense Saturday helped restore some order in the offense-heavy Big 12. It was the first time Nebraska has won a game while scoring less than 35 points since the Wake Forest game last year. But it's not time to hand out Blackshirts just yet. The Husker defense is improving, but it lacks athleticism and it could be sliced up next week at Norman, Okla., by the powerful Sooner offensive machine.
Then again, who knows what the Huskers will do on defense? If they play a disciplined, well-executed game and cut down on the overanxious penalties (personal fouls, facemasks), they just might keep the Huskers in the game for quite awhile. Ganz has the Husker offense running efficiently, although not spectacularly, and Nebraska might give OU all it wants.
Did you glance at the conference standings? Nebraska (5-3 overall, 2-2 in the conference) is tied for first in the Big 12 North, which has not improved as much this year as I thought it was going to. Missouri and Kansas are obviously a notch or a notch and a half below anyone in the South.
But even if the Huskers take a beating at Oklahoma, I like their chances to come back and win their last three games. Unless they lose several key players with injuries, Nebraska will be a major player in the North race the rest of the season. Pelini's mental toughness appears to be rubbing off on his team, which is starting to learn how to overachieve. The Kansas game on Nov. 8 in Lincoln is looming larger every week
The Cornhuskers still have a lot of miles to cover this season. Four more games, plus a probable bowl berth. The Husker Nation can look forward to the homestretch with much more optimism than it could a year ago. And that's worth a lot.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. | Archive