An elbow to the chest, that's all it took. One random play, one innocuous collision, and Nebraska's defensive anchor, tackle Jared Crick, goes from potential All-American to former Cornhusker.
But if Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is worried about the hole Crick leaves along his defensive front, he certainly doesn't betray those doubts publicly.
"We feel we'll be fine up front," Pelini said Monday, shortly after the senior tackle underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. "I feel good about [a trio of potential replacements], and the potential we have at those spots."
Truthfully, the Huskers -- who make their first appearance in Minnesota Saturday as a Big Ten member -- might end up getting more production out of Crick's interior spot, because the injury appeared to limit his pocket-busting ability. Crick was hurt by that stray elbow on Sept. 17 against Washington, and sat out Nebraska's nonconference finale at Wyoming, intending to come back strong for Big Ten play.
The injury lingered, however, because the area where the muscle had pulled away from his ribs did not show up on an initial MRI. Crick played against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but the league's most feared defender -- Crick was voted preseason Defensive Player of the Year in a survey of Big Ten media members -- was not the same. Crick piled up 19 sacks in the previous two seasons, but with his strength reduced by injury, he registered only a single sack this year, and none after the injury, before the Huskers ordered another MRI last week.
That one spotted the tear, and Crick's career at Nebraska, where he blossomed alongside Ndamukong Suh, a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions this year, was over.
"I feel horrible for Jared. He's a good football player, he came back, and obviously this isn't the way he wanted to end his career here," Pelini said of the senior tackle, who considered turning pro last spring but decided to return to Nebraska for the Huskers' first Big Ten season. "I'm just happy that, going forward, he'll be just fine."
Yes, but will the Cornhuskers? Nebraska's defense, coordinated by Pelini's brother Carl, has been a huge disappointment this season, allowing 27.2 points and 372.7 yards per game. Only once in the past six decades have the Huskers been so generous to opposing offenses. (That came in 2007, when Kevin Cosgrove -- the Gophers' defensive coordinator the past two seasons -- headed Nebraska's defense.)
How badly has the rush defense, which Crick was supposed to secure from the middle, been abused by ball-carriers? Even the Gophers have allowed fewer yards on the ground.
Crick's spot alongside starter Baker Steinkuler will be filled, Bo Pelini said, by a trio of tackles: senior Terrence Moore, sophomore Thaddeus Randle and redshirt freshman Chase Rome, who is considered a future Crick-like star. Those three players have only 13 tackles among them, and none has the strong arms and hands that made Crick almost impossible for centers and guards to handle alone.
"We really have four starters, or three starters [next to] Baker [Steinkuler]. We don't really get caught up" in who starts," Pelini said. "Chase has really gotten better. He's come a long way, his knowledge and understanding of what we're asking him to do. I told Thad he's got to pick it up a little bit, but we're just looking for consistency."