Tanner Lee, Tre Bryant among offensive stars, but defense has hiccups in wild contest too close for comfort

LINCOLN — Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut cut. As Arkansas State’s spread, no-huddle, hurry-up offense bled Nebraska’s new defense with a series of short, precise passes, Husker fans grew anxious, especially after the Red Wolves recovered an onside kick and threatened to tie the Huskers in a final minute of a four-hour marathon shootout Saturday night.

After NU survived 43-36 over ASU, Husker players said they were calm. Assured.

“I was very confident,” receiver Stanley Morgan said. “I was chillin. It wasn’t really a big factor to me. I knew we would hold them up.”

Cornerback Eric Lee, one of the starters in new coordinator Bob Diaco’s bend-almost-break scheme, believed Nebraska would rise to the moment.

“Coach Diaco has said it before: There’s nothing better than having your defense on the field to win the game,” Lee said. “So we definitely kind of embraced it. So when we saw the onside kick get recovered, it was like, all right, this is what we’ve been waiting for, to bow up and show the nation that, when times get tough, the Blackshirts can get the job done.”

In those final plays, Nebraska did get it done. Arkansas State threw two passes into the Husker end zone, and both were incomplete. NU’s offense had built up enough of a lead to keep a monumental upset at bay.

But Diaco’s defense gave up 497 yards and 32 first downs before all that. The defense’s often tentative performance overshadowed, to some small degree, a sparkling debut for quarterback Tanner Lee — who threw for 238 yards and two touchdowns — a breakout performance from running back Tre Bryant and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by JD Spielman. NU even had two interceptions and forced a safety.

All those little cuts, though. ASU quarterback Justice Hansen threw 68 passes, completing 46. Four Red Wolves receivers caught at least seven passes. Arkansas State converted 7 of 13 third downs.

Outside of telling reporters “excuse me,” as he walked to the elevator, Diaco had no comment. When asked about the performance of Diaco’s defense, coach Mike Riley paused for three seconds and slightly chuckled. He was in no particular mood to critique his high-priced coordinator. Riley said he liked how certain aspects of the defense were called and how the Husker D communicated.

“I think we ran into a buzzsaw tonight,” Riley said. “They played really well against us.”

Riley didn’t like giving up a few big plays — like a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown or a 38-yard play on a bubble screen — but, generally, he has an optimistic feeling about the direction of the defense.

“I’m 100 percent on this — I really like where our defense is headed,” Riley said.

Riley, whose specialty is offense, expects to score on every drive, but he said he liked Lee’s efficiency passing the ball and his willingness to throw the ball away when he had nothing there. He also got sacked just once, consistently getting rid of the ball before the pressure got to him.

“Oh man, it was fun,” Lee said. “The most fun I’ve had in awhile.”

Said center Cole Conrad: “We’ve known what he can do. We’ve just got to give him time back there. He’s a special player.”

Bryant had some special moments himself, running for 192 yards on 31 carries. Held out at times during training camp, Bryant was given the green light to play as many snaps as possible on Saturday. He responded with one of the best games from any Husker back in recent years. He got three carries on NU’s opening drive — which led to a field goal. He had all but six of NU’s 38 carries, one of which was Lee getting sacked.

“Many times I got the second level untouched,” said Bryant, whose long runs of 24 and 35 yards came on touchdown drives. “That was all my blockers.”

Bryant’s first rushing touchdown of the night — a 1-yarder — gave NU a 34-26 lead early in the third quarter after the Huskers led 27-26 at halftime. The Huskers extended the lead to 41-26 — their largest of the game — at the 12:25 mark of the fourth quarter when Lee hit De’Mornay Pierson-El on a slant pattern.

From there, the game got a little hectic. Arkansas State drove for a field goal, gave up a safety on a holding penalty in its own end zone, drove for a touchdown, and recovered an onside kick when ASU kicker Sawyer Williams perfectly popped a ball over Pierson-El’s head. ASU receiver Chris Murray recovered.

Arkansas State drove to the NU 9 — aided by a personal foul on Husker safety Antonio Reed — before Hansen, who threw for 415 yards, missed twice. On the first pass, NU cornerback Lamar Jackson broke up the pass. On the second, Hansen rolled out and threw high of his target in the back of the end zone.

“It was big-time stuff,” Riley said. “It was great. Obviously the crowd is electric. All the emotion in the world is out there. One play, two plays. It’s crazy. So I was really proud at how our kids reacted and won the game.”

In Riley’s words, it was a lot of football. Yes, all of that. Seventeen penalties, 159 plays, 10 punts, trip after trip into the red zone.

And, in Lee’s words, a lot of errors that can be fixed.

“We definitely made a lot of easy mistakes,” Lee said. “We definitely beat ourselves in a lot of areas today. When we look at film we’ll see that and have that corrected going into Oregon.”

It’ll need to be. Oregon can run the same offense as Arkansas State — with better players.

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