LINCOLN — Nebraska football had that lump in its throat again. A lump the size of Memorial Stadium, which drew to a hush after NU quarterback Tanner Lee had thrown yet another interception that resulted in yet another touchdown for the opponent. The Huskers threatened to punctuate a bad week with a below-the-barrel loss to Big Ten doormat Rutgers.
“You heard it, you heard everything, it got quiet,” NU coach Mike Riley said.
Unlike its loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska rebounded — dare we say they competed? — with its longest touchdown drive of the year, tough running from a familiar name, superior line play and a defense that produced its best game yet in a 27-17 win over Rutgers.
It was no beauty. Perhaps only a mother — or Riley — would love it. Nebraska was missing its starting right tackle, center, outside linebacker and both safeties after Aaron Williams was tossed for a targeting penalty. But after a week in which Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst got fired, Nebraska (2-2) will take a win and the “hip, hip hooray” locker room chant that goes with it. And Riley will take that brief congratulations he received after the game from NU President Hank Bounds, the man who fired Eichorst on Thursday.
The Riley era remains on the ropes, but he’s still standing. He said his team could have been paralyzed after Lee’s third pick-six of 2017 — which gave Rutgers a 17-14 lead. It wasn’t. It won.
“I’m really proud of them for going out there and making some plays physically at that point,” Riley said.
Riley meant running the ball. After the pick-six, Riley stuck with Lee — who heard boos from the 89,775 in attendance upon his return to the game — but ran the ball on 31 of the last 42 snaps. On NU’s 17-play, 97-yard, game-winning touchdown drive, running back Mikale Wilbon quickly blasted for 11 and 15 yards. Lee did his part, completing 6 of 8 passes for 51 yards, including a touchdown to De’Mornay Pierson-El for a 21-17 lead.
Rutgers, which has not won a Big Ten game since 2015, helped that drive with personal foul penalty by the same guy, Kiy Hester, who scored on the pick-six. Still, NU got off the mat. Lee had made his share of winning plays. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf never considered any other quarterback.
“Tanner’s the guy,” said Langsdorf who said a poor play call led to Lee’s pick-six.
“He sucked it up and made some throws,” Riley said.
Nebraska’s defense made some stops. A lot of them after Rutgers (1-3) scored a touchdown on its opening drive of the game, getting help from a bizarre foot-to-posterior catch from tight end Jerome Washington in the process. The Scarlet Knights gained just 119 yards for the rest of the game — 194 total — converting only 3 of 12 third downs.
“Ten points, under 200 yards, that’s the right way,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said.
The last time a Husker opponent gained fewer than 200 yards? Michigan in 2013.
Nebraska botched its chance to do it last week when it allowed NIU’s game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“Last week, we had that one drive where we had the opportunity to shut it down and we didn’t,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “This week, we give up that drive to start the game and we knew that was it.”
After Nebraska took the lead, Husker safety Antonio Reed got an interception. Nebraska turned that into a Drew Brown field goal and a 24-17 lead. Rutgers then went three-and-out and punted. The Huskers crawled 50 yards in 12 plays for another field goal. Rutgers’ next drive ended in a punt. On RU’s final, last-gasp drive, Gifford snagged an interception to ice it.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco doesn’t like stat sheets — hates to even look at them — but understands the “hallmarks” of winning football.
“You can’t let a team run on you, you’ve got to be great in the red zone, and if you take the football away a little bit you’ve got a great chance,” Diaco said.
When you can possess the ball for nearly 23 minutes in the second half — like the Huskers did — that helps a defense.
Nebraska rode Wilbon and junior Devine Ozigbo, who had career-high 24 carries for 101 yards in his return from obscurity. Ozigbo had 19 carries in the second half, bulling through arm tackles and carrying defenders. The crowd has picked him as a favorite, and cheered his entry into the game.
“I definitely wanted to prove something for myself and just show I could do it,” Ozigbo said. “And now everybody can say they wished me good luck.”
Riley said coaches will consider a running back rotation going forward. They’d junked it in favor of riding a single guy, Tre Bryant, but he’s missed two games with knee pain. Nebraska ran for 197 yards. Left guard Jerald Foster said the offensive line was “real live” and “definitely better than we were the week prior.” Lee said the line won the game.
“They wanted to take over the game and that’s exactly what they did,” Lee said.
The quarterback again struggled. He completed half of his passes to teammates and two more to Rutgers. He’s now thrown nine interceptions in four games. He called his pick-six a “dumb play.” But he played clean for most of the second half, and Riley saw building blocks going forward.
The same goes for his team. Pierson-El had a 63-yard punt returnthat set up a touchdown. Reed, who couldn’t find his place on defense, has done so, playing two straight strong games at safety. There are signs of life as Nebraska heads into a short week.
“Winning games are hard,” Riley said. “I would suppose after last week, that game was — these kids are happy right now. They know it was hard, they know they played well, and they knew a lot of new parts played an important role. I’m pretty excited.”
Riley, assistants and players said, kept a steady hand in the 48 hours after Eichorst’s firing. Diaco said he saw “zero” change.
“He’s been great,” Diaco said. “Worked hard. Leadership. Patient, calm, strong, football intelligent, helpful, just a stalwart.”
No feelings of revenge?
“No!” Diaco said. “My gosh, I don’t think he has a bone like that in his body.”
Players wouldn’t bite on sharing their thoughts on Eichorst’s firing. They were happy to stand behind their head coach.
“It don’t matter what I think, honestly,” Barry said. “But I love my coach, and I’m standing behind him. We’ve got to produce on the field and that’s we need to focus on week to week, game to game.”
Defense steps up after Aaron Williams’ ejection
LINCOLN — Ten snaps into the game, Nebraska lost its most experienced safety. The defensive backs’ response made that absence much less painful.
When junior Aaron Williams was ejected for targeting on his helmet hit of Rutgers’ Hunter Hayek, defenders met briefly on the field. And while they gave up a touchdown run two plays later, they settled in to allow just three points the rest of the way.
“We got a tight secondary, defense in general,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “That’s one that we strive on is our brotherhood and really caring for each other and playing with love. At the end of the day, we all gotta play for each other in different zones, different schemes. So one guy went down, and during the week they stress, ‘Each guy prepare like he’s going to play.’ We had to make some adjustments, and guys got in and they were ready to play and we were still able to get it done.”
Kieron Williams, who started nine games last year but had seen action only on special teams this fall before Saturday, saw the majority of the snaps in Aaron Williams’ absence. The senior didn’t record any official statistics but played well for a safeties group that NU coaches have considered thin enough to put their starters in green no-contact jerseys at times in practices.
“He even told me, ‘I ain’t even been on the field a minute,’ but he was excited,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ There wasn’t too much to say after that. He did his job and we helped assist each other and make plays.”
Bradley earns his first carries
On Jaylin Bradley’s first carry in a Nebraska uniform, the true freshman gained a yard and had his bell rung by a Rutgers linebacker.
But the pain of that hit wore off quickly once he heard his name over the loudspeakers.
“Run by Jaylin Bradley, gain of 1,” it rang, followed by a chorus of applause.
“That kinda put a smile on my face,” Bradley said after the game.
The former Bellevue West standout had six carries for 16 yards.
Bradley played in Memorial Stadium during state title games and said he approached the game with the same attitude as last year.
“I’m glad I got some carries, finally, so it felt pretty good,” he said.
Head coach Mike Riley told Bradley in fall camp that he wouldn’t be redshirting and would play. Bradley appeared in a game for the first time last weekend on the kickoff return team.
After the loss to Northern Illinois, Riley told Bradley to be ready. He’d be getting snaps a running back in a week.
Though Devine Ozigbo ended up with the bulk of the carries, Bradley said he started to get into a rhythm after a few plays.
“After the first carry, that second carry I had a big run and gained more confidence, so that kinda helped me,” he said. “Hopefully I can get some more carries next week.”
Stille makes move, earns reps
Another Nebraska native got the most extended action of his young career Saturday when Ashland-Greenwood defensive end/outside linebacker Ben Stille played whole chunks of the win over Rutgers.
Stille was pressed into action in part because of injuries to outside linebackers Marcus Newby and Tyrin Ferguson. Stille had moved back to defensive end from outside linebacker earlier this year, but he switched to linebacker for Saturday.
“I switched positions Wednesday,” Stille said. “I figured out what I was doing from Wednesday until now, so that’s how I got on the field.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Stille earned the playing time with good practice habits.
“We’re looking at practice and looking at his work and saying ‘Who’s not playing enough?’” Diaco said. “And we look at Ben and say, ‘this guy’s got to play more.’ He knows what to do. He’s tough and rugged. He plays hard and cares a great deal.”
Diaco said he expects Stille to be in Nebraska’s defensive rotation for the Big Ten season.
Offense has Lee’s back
It didn’t sit well with the offense that Tanner Lee was booed. Not at all.
“I definitely heard the boos. I wasn’t too happy about the boos,” wide receiver JD Spielman said. “At the end of the day, that is our starting quarterback. And no matter how he plays, you have to back him up because maybe all he needs is a little bit of push from fans telling him it’s going to be OK and that they have his back.”
Spielman called Lee the “base” of the Nebraska offense. And the reason he’s such a gifted leader, Spielman said, is because of how steady Lee is on the sideline, even after getting booed
“If Tanner’s emotions go running around wild, then everyone else on the offense is going to start panicking,” Spielman said. “One of the biggest things about him being a leader is he’s able to stay calm and keep everyone on track.”
Huskers go deeper into bench
Nebraska’s offense had some new faces on the field Saturday.
In place of injured starters, Nebraska ran out guys like Brenden Jaimes, Gabe Rahn, Michael Decker, Conor Young and Brett Classen. Guys who’ve hardly played a snap in a Nebraska uniform.
“I don’t know how many recognizable names there were for some people,” Langsdorf said. “We had to use the whole stable of receivers. Everybody that we had we were pushing them in there.”