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'He tackled him too hard': Inside Ndamukong Suh's legendary 2009 season

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Ndamukong Suh was a dominant force at Nebraska (0:52)

Ten years ago, Ndamukong Suh was lighting up opposing backfields as a fearsome defensive end. Take a look back at his highlights. (0:52)

Bo Pelini sat in the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, filled with pride and a hint of resignation. Zero chance, the Nebraska coach told himself, as the 2009 Heisman Trophy ceremony began.

The result that night in New York wouldn't be as surprising or as painful as the one Pelini and his team absorbed a week earlier in Arlington, Texas, but neither outcome felt right. Texas was the Big 12 champion, and Alabama running back Mark Ingram was the Heisman winner.

But most who watched the Big 12 championship game, or tracked the late-season Heisman race, remember someone else. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had delivered one of the best seasons in college football history, punctuated against Texas in that Big 12 title game by arguably the best performance by a college defensive lineman. Suh recorded unfathomable stats at that position that season: 85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 24 quarterback hurries, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks and an interception. Against the Longhorns alone, he recorded 4.5 sacks and 12 tackles, including seven for loss.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound colossus played with grace and brutality, once getting penalized for sacking Baylor's Nick Florence too hard.

"I remember Bo asking the ref, 'What's the flag for?'" said James Dobson, Nebraska's strength and conditioning coach. "The ref was like, 'It was a legal tackle, nothing dirty, but he tackled him too hard.' That was the excuse."

Suh won AP Player of the Year and four national awards, cementing himself as the greatest defensive player at one of college football's greatest programs.

"I remember sitting there thinking, 'He's not going to win but he should,'" Pelini said. "I said it to a couple guys that night -- maybe Billy Sims, we were talking about Suh. That's not knocking whoever won. Suh was special. I thought he was the best football player in the United States that year, and I'll take that to my grave."

Ten years later, ESPN spoke with Suh and others about his 2009 season, which included an electrifying effort during a power outage at Missouri, a performance so ruthless Iowa State coaches feared legal repercussions, an introduction to Warren Buffett, a late-season Heisman campaign, and the Big 12 championship, which one former Texas assistant coach calls "the least favorite game I ever won."

'We ain't blocking that guy'

Suh arrived at Nebraska in 2005 as a decorated recruit from Portland, Oregon. He showed promise in 2006 -- eight of his 19 tackles came behind the line, including 3.5 sacks -- but his pressure numbers dropped in 2007, when Nebraska went 5-7 and fired coach Bill Callahan.

"His first two years at Nebraska, he was pretty ordinary," Nebraska play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe said.

Suh considered transferring home to Oregon State.

"Everyone's like, 'You've got to recruit Suh, make sure he doesn't leave,'" said Pelini, hired as the Huskers' coach in December 2007. "I put on the film and I'm watching him run himself out of plays a lot. You can position-block a guy like that."

But Pelini sensed what Suh could become. He had just coached Glenn Dorsey, who won four national awards while playing defensive tackle for national champion LSU.

"[Pelini] was like, 'You have just as much athletic ability, if not more,'" Suh said.

Suh stayed in Lincoln. While recovering from knee surgery that spring, he immersed himself in Pelini's defense, which highlighted defensive linemen by requiring each to cover two gaps, not one. By lining up directly in front of opposing guards, Suh would be more difficult to double-team.

"Before Bo Pelini got there, it was a bad deal," said Jared Crick, who was a defensive tackle for the Huskers from 2008 to '11 before heading to the NFL. "Defensive linemen were used more as pawns than playmakers. Our mindset was, 'We don't want to be pawns anymore.'"

That fall, Suh became the first Nebraska defensive lineman to lead the team in tackles (76) since 1973. He had 7.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and two interception returns for touchdowns. He even played some fullback, catching a 2-yard touchdown against Kansas.

In the Gator Bowl against Clemson, Suh recorded four tackles for loss, two sacks and a blocked kick. At one point, first-year Clemson coach Dabo Swinney approached offensive lineman Thomas Austin.

"I'm mad because we just gave up a tackle for loss or a sack, and he looks at me and says, 'Coach, we can't block that guy,'" Swinney said. "I'm like, 'What do you mean we can't block him?' And he's like, 'I'm just telling you, we ain't blocking that guy.' That was a crazy moment, and the next year, the whole world saw how dominant he was.

"He became Suh and did all those things. I'm like, 'Oh, Thomas was right.'"

Suh's strong finish left Nebraskans nervous that the big man would go pro. He was interested in the NFL and received a late-first-round grade from the draft advisory board.

In January 2009, Pelini flew to Oregon to meet with Suh and his family. Suh picked up the coach at the airport. As they pulled into a restaurant parking lot, he told Pelini he had already discussed his future. Suh's mother, Bernadette, an elementary school teacher, had told her son if he went pro, he would still need to complete his Nebraska degree.

Suh needed only nine more credits, but saw "no way" he would leave Lincoln and then return.

"He said, 'I'm coming back, there's more for me,'" Pelini recalled. "I was like, 'That's awesome! Let's go have some dinner.'"

From Missouri to stardom

The lights went out in Nebraska's locker room. A massive rainstorm hit Columbia, Missouri, as the Huskers and Tigers were getting read to clash in ESPN's Thursday night game, temporarily knocking out power at Faurot Field before power was partially restored.

"It was raining, it was wet and it was miserable," Dobson said. "They didn't bring any lights to us in the locker room, so we were holding up phones for flashlights, trying to dress, trying to do halftime, you name it. Everything was against us, and that guy stepped up and did his thing."

Nebraska came into the game 3-1, but the whole team looked sluggish, taking a safety in the game's first minute and fumbling five times. Suh provided the only spark by pressuring quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert entered the game with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions, but with Nebraska trailing 12-0 heading into the fourth quarter, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini needed his unit to force a turnover. Suh remembers Pelini telling the defense, "It's on you guys for us to win this game," a statement that applied throughout the season.

"[Suh] actually called it," said John Papuchis, who helped coach Nebraska's defensive line. "He's like, 'I'm going to go out there and get a pick.'"

After Nebraska broke through with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Missouri took possession at its 21-yard line. Suh started to rush Gabbert but stopped, perfectly timing his leap to intercept the ball. Two plays later, Nebraska had the lead.

A 27-0 fourth quarter lifted the Huskers to victory, and Suh to national stardom.

"We had been talking about him because Pelini was high on him, and look, he had done some things, but he wasn't seen as the kind of defensive wrecking crew, one-man gang who would cross over and be seen as one of the best players in the sport," said announcer Chris Fowler, who called the game. "After that game, people saw him as a game-wrecker."

'A one-man show'

Iowa State's coaches met to review the game film, as they did every Sunday. This time, though, they watched in disbelief.

"'Can you believe we won this game?' That was the collective sentiment," said Tom Herman, ISU's offensive coordinator that season. "It was a one-man show."

ISU shuffled its offensive line against Suh, who recorded a sack, three quarterback hurries and two blocked field goal attempts.

"We had to play one kid, who got matched up against [Suh] quite a bit," said Paul Rhoads, ISU's head coach at the time. "We were afraid that the kid and the family would sue us for assault by the time the game was over. Suh just had his way."

Iowa State never entered the red zone and averaged 3.6 yards per play. The Cyclones had an 8-0 advantage in turnovers but, thanks to Suh, scored just nine points, narrowly winning the game 9-7.

"I coached Ed Oliver, he was pretty damn dominant, but I don't know if I've ever seen a defensive tackle dominate games the way that [Suh] did," Herman said. "He took a guard, I'll never forget, and just threw him. I believe the kid stumbled, we counted watching film the next day, it was like 7 yards back before he hit the ground.

Last fall, while playing for the Los Angeles Rams, Suh spent off days training at UCLA's facility. Rhoads, who now coaches UCLA's defensive backs, thought about approaching him.

"I wanted to say something about the game and how well he played and all that, but I never even brought it up," Rhoads said. "I thought he might be mad at me."

Pancakes with Warren Buffett

Before Nebraska hosted Oklahoma on Nov. 7, a staff member approached Suh.

"Do you know who Warren Buffett is?"

"Of course!"

"Would you like to meet him?"

"Of course!"

Buffett, the world-famous business magnate from Omaha who graduated from Nebraska, had been named one of four honorary captains for the game.

Suh and Buffett met in the locker room before kickoff. Buffett was "in awe of his abilities on the field," and watched Suh block a kick and pressure quarterback Landry Jones in a 10-3 Huskers victory. Nebraska scored its lone touchdown in the quarter when Buffett served as captain.

"I'm 1-0," Buffett said.

After the season, Suh asked athletic director Tom Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska coach, if he could contact Buffett. Osborne gets many such requests but rarely follows through, out of respect to Buffett.

"In this case I did," Osborne said, "because I knew Warren was a football fan, and he liked to help young people."

They met at a pancake house in Omaha. Suh peppered Buffett with ideas and tips on how to succeed in the business world.

"We hit it off immediately," Buffett said. "Ndamukong, with all the success he had, he was a very serious thinker about his future. He was interested in learning everything about business, and, for that matter, life a little bit, too. If I'd been a great athlete -- and I was the world's worst -- I'd have gotten all full of myself. Some of them can't see beyond the moment and others can. LeBron [James] has always been very good that way, and Ndamukong does that."

Buffett and Suh have remained friends ever since.

"I take him out every time he comes [to Nebraska]," Buffett said, "to see if I can still arm-wrestle with him."

The hype builds

By November, Suh had become a national superstar and fringe Heisman candidate.

Chants of "Suuuuuuuuuh!" filled Nebraska's Memorial Stadium after every sack and knockdown. Suh was the biggest celebrity in a football-obsessed state, but kept a low profile.

"We cooked a lot, we went out to eat and then just watched TV, we didn't play a lot of video games or anything like that," said David Harvey, a reserve defensive lineman and Suh's best friend. "Nebraska was a great place for us to stay focused. There wasn't a whole lot of outside distractions."

"We had to play one kid, who got matched up against [Suh] quite a bit. We were afraid that the kid and the family would sue us for assault by the time the game was over." Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads

Added Crick: "He wasn't a party guy. That's all I wanted to do after games, like, 'Hey man, where's the party at?' That was never the case with him. He was all business."

Suh frequented several spots, like The Oven, an Indian restaurant near his apartment. Everyone knew him, but kept a respectful distance.

"It's more so, 'Hi' and 'Bye,' I don't recall ever being super-bombarded," Suh said. "Like being in a fishbowl, as we would refer to it, eyes are always on you. You're used to that attention, just because people are all about Nebraska football."

'A Pro Bowler in a college game'

The story of Suh's career-defining performance began long before kickoff.

"We had about two weeks to study them," he said of the Longhorns. "I knew their offense like the back of my hand. Once they didn't change anything, that's probably one of the best feelings as an athlete, to say, 'All right, I know what's coming, I can anticipate it and go make the plays.'"

While Suh's preparation propelled him, Texas wasn't ready for No. 93.

"The scouting report from some of the coaches is he's going to make plays, but he's not going to play hard all the time," said Mack Brown, then Texas' coach. "I'm telling you, he played hard every play in our game and made every play."

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Suh overpowers Texas O-line for sack

Ndamukong Suh pushes through the offensive line and sacks Colt McCoy in the 2009 Big 12 championship game vs. Texas.

Texas came in averaging 43 points per game. Colt McCoy, the winningest quarterback in FBS history, had completed 72% of his passes. All five offensive line starters earned All-Big 12 honors.

None of it mattered against Suh. Seven of Suh's team-high 12 tackles were behind the line, including 4.5 sacks, for a Big 12 championship game record.

"He was the most dominant one I've ever had the misfortune to coach against," said Mac McWhorter, who coached Texas' offensive line then. "Early in my career, we faced Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers. We never had problems like that. That night was a nightmare.

"That's probably the least favorite game I ever won."

Crick, who started next to Suh, described it as "a Pro Bowler playing in a collegiate game."

"I played with [J.J.] Watt, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, a bunch of great players," said Crick, who logged five NFL seasons. "I haven't seen a more dominant performance."

"We didn't have any answers for the Cornhuskers defense," McCoy wrote later in The Players' Tribune. "Ndamukong Suh spent most of the day tossing me every which way around the field."

Afterward, in a demoralized locker room, Carl Pelini leaned over to Papuchis.

"My locker was next to Carl's," Papuchis said, "and he goes, 'You don't appreciate it now, but that might have been the single greatest D-line performance in college football history.'"

No one in the winning locker room would argue.

"In my 43 years in coaching, he might have had the most dominant performance of anybody, specifically, but really a defensive lineman," Brown said. "We were really good. Nobody had dominated us like that. He just took over."

"He was the most dominant one I've ever had the misfortune to coach against. Early in my career, we faced Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers. We never had problems like that. That night was a nightmare." Former Texas offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, on Suh's performance vs. Texas

Echoing millions of Nebraskans, Suh says of the Big 12 title game ending, "I definitely haven't gotten over it."

To reset the scene, Nebraska led Texas 12-10 after a field goal with 1 minute, 44 seconds left. Despite recording only five first downs and 106 total yards, Nebraska was positioned for its first league title since 1999.

Suh and the defense needed one more stop.

Texas quickly drove to the Nebraska 26-yard line, but then Suh sacked McCoy and safety DeJon Gomes dropped McCoy for a 1-yard loss. The Longhorns had a timeout and were in field goal range. The plan called for McCoy to roll out and look downfield, hoping to catch Nebraska napping. If not, he'd toss the ball away.

But the clock kept ticking.

"With about 9 or 8 [seconds left], we had a timeout, so I tell Mack, 'Take it! Take it! And Mack started moving to take the timeout," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "About that time, Colt took the snap."

McCoy caught the ball with 6 seconds left, moving to his right. Suh split two Texas linemen and closed, lunging at the quarterback just as he threw toward the sideline. The ball had to cross the line of scrimmage and hit something to stop the clock.

Bo Pelini: "If Suh doesn't throw two guys out of the way, Colt McCoy probably holds on to the ball for an extra second and they probably don't put any time back."

Suh: "The misguided extra second."

At first, the clock expired. Nebraska had won the Big 12. Brown raised one finger in protest. Pelini raised his arms in victory. Then referee Tom Walker informed him there would be a review.

A second was restored. Hunter Lawrence's kick sailed over Suh, who had blocked three that season, and through the uprights.

"I wasn't at the game," Buffett said, "but I suffered."

After the game of his life, Suh cared only about the result. He sat alone in the locker room. "He was pissed," Crick said. "We all were."

"Suh has never been about statistics," Bo Pelini said. "He never gave a s--- about that."

Suh had returned to Nebraska to boost his NFL stock, but he also wanted a championship. He got one, and then it disappeared.

"People always talk about, 'Well, you didn't win another championship,' but from my point of view, I'm not so sure we didn't win it or were certainly deserving," Osborne said. "He was a major part of that."

'The best defensive player to ever step foot there'

Despite Nebraska's loss, Suh was the talk of college football. He received an invitation to New York as a Heisman finalist, alongside Ingram, McCoy, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.

Nebraska had started pushing Suh for national awards after the Missouri game, but the campaign revved up.

"In the Texas game, he got a sack of Colt McCoy and my call ended up being, 'And there's the best player in college football!'" Sharpe said. "But knowing he wasn't going to win the race. It was too late. Most people probably had already made up their mind by that point."

Pelini, Dobson and the defensive coaches joined Suh in New York. Ingram won in the closest Heisman race ever. Suh won voting in the Southwest region but finished fourth overall.

"As a competitor, very upset, especially since I won AP Player of the Year," Suh said. "I thought that should have translated to the Heisman, but nonetheless, congrats to Mark Ingram. More or less, people voting for that all realize it is an offensive-driven award, to say the least."

Suh swept other awards: the Lombardi, Outland, Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik.

"I took some s--- when I got here," said Herman, now Texas' coach. "Somebody had asked me about Ndamukong and I said, 'Yeah, that year, he should have won the Heisman.' I had forgotten that Colt McCoy was a finalist, too. I always thought [the Heisman] was the most dominant player in college football.

"To tell me there was one more dominant than [Suh], I don't know."

Suh's Heisman worthiness is still debated. His place in Nebraska history is not.

"As you grow up in Nebraska, you remember the backs more than you do the linemen," Buffett said. "But with Ndamukong, Nebraska football centered around him."

Nebraska has three Heisman winners and others who belong among college football's all-time greats, but Sharpe puts Suh on the program's Mount Rushmore and doesn't think many would disagree.

"You always do the all-century team, but you could do an all-millennium team and Suh's still your starting defensive tackle," Crick said. "He's the best defensive player to ever step foot there. That's going to be the case until that university is no more."