LINCOLN — Scramble drill. On the third-and-forever, heave-ho play that helped secure Nebraska’s 36-28 win over Southern Mississippi — secure it as much as this inconsistent Husker team is currently capable of doing, anyway — quarterback Tommy Armstrong told his receivers he might run out of the pocket and think big. Be ready.
Brandon Reilly was ready, coming entirely across the field on a post pattern. Armstrong fit a pass in between defenders. Reilly slid and hauled it in for 41 yards.
That play — on an afternoon full of penalties, big plays and blown chances, field goals and fullback blasts — allowed the Huskers to shave just enough time off the game clock that, when Nebraska botched a chip-shot field goal, Southern Mississippi had 29 seconds to go 80 yards and tie the game. The Golden Eagles fell short, and Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker, his unit smacked by injuries and opposing quarterbacks, raised his arms with happiness. Coach Mike Riley wore a half-smile in the postgame press conference.
You expected glum? Hey — survival can taste sweet, too. It’ll have to after Saturday, when Nebraska nearly piddled away a 22-0 halftime lead.
“It’s never easy,” Riley said. He then admitted that, yes, Nebraska had made it “very hard” on itself.
“It stems from letting that game get as close as it did and giving them life,” Riley added.
The Golden Eagles teetered on the brink several times. NU kept pulling them back onto the cliff.
In front of 89,899 fans at Memorial Stadium, NU (2-2) outgained the Golden Eagles (2-2) by 208 yards in the first half. The Huskers didn’t punt in that half. USM had minus-14 yards rushing. Nebraska could have led 38-0. But it was merely 22-0 because the Huskers settled for five Drew Brown field goals instead of touchdowns. Three of those field goals were shorter than 30 yards. Right in red zone territory.
“Lack of execution,” said Armstrong, who completed 65.7 percent of his passes and threw for 368 yards. “We had ourselves in the right situation. Sometimes I made bad reads. I should have thrown it to certain guys. ... In that first half, we kinda killed ourselves. Myself, making bad reads, not putting the ball on the money.”
Said Reilly: “We didn’t really get stopped much. We just couldn’t finish.”
Still, Nebraska had the ball to start the second half. Banker’s defense, using more man-to-man coverage according to Southern Mississippi players, was in control.
Until Armstrong tried in vain to force a pass to best friend Jordan Westerkamp on the second play after halftime. The ball was tipped and intercepted by D’Nerius Antoine. Southern Mississippi scored two plays later, cutting the lead to 22-7.
The interception — and quick score — was a weird switch that flipped. Like the switch that flipped in Miami last week, only in Nebraska’s favor. The Huskers still moved the ball and led 29-7 heading into the fourth quarter. But nothing was easy. Here’s why:
» Southern Miss finally figured out Banker’s scheme. Because starting linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey were out with injuries, Banker deliberately condensed his scheme for the game. He even left a couple of defensive play calls on the cutting room floor after installing them during the week.
“If you get beat, you get beat,” Banker said, “but don’t do something from a standpoint of lack of execution on something they’re not quite familiar with.”
USM quarterback Nick Mullens, a junior in his third year as a starter, said he started hitting receivers downfield with “man beaters” against Nebraska’s coverage. Mullens, who threw for 447 yards on just 26 completions, especially had success throwing to backs — who caught nine passes for 132 yards — and smallish slot receiver Casey Martin, who caught two touchdowns.
“We were losing the back going across,” Banker said. Backs tend to be the linebackers’ responsibility, although on one quirky zone blitz, mammoth defensive end Greg McMullen was out there in coverage. “In our scheme of things, nothing inside goes across the linebackers’ face. When that back goes, they’ve got to push (out).”
Banker said he didn’t want to make any excuses about injuries. In addition to Banderas and Rose-Ivey, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and defensive end Jack Gangwish also didn’t play.
“We’ve just got to go out and play,” Banker said, “and then it’s up to me and the other coaches to coach them in those positions.”
Southern Miss gained 339 yards in the second half alone.
Nebraska’s tailbacks disappeared. Terrell Newby ran for 31 yards on NU’s opening drive of the game. After that, he, Imani Cross and Devine Ozigbo combined for 56 yards on 19 carries. Those 19 carries were less productive than five carries by fullback Andy Janovich, who ran for 68 yards and hadn’t toted the ball all season before Saturday. Cross lost a fumble, too.
Janovich, who didn’t talk to reporters after the game, ripped off a key 28-yard run on one of NU’s second-half touchdown drives and caught a 53-yard pass in the first half, too.
“You’ve got to show your fullbacks a little love every once in awhile,” Armstrong said.
Still, with NU’s usual running game in neutral, Janovich and Armstrong — who ran for 63 yards — had to stand in.
» Nebraska was flagged for eight second-half penalties and 12 for the game. Riley called some of them “surprisingly interesting.”
» NU’s special teams, strong in the first half, faltered in the second. Brown missed two field goals. Nebraska failed to field an onside kick. Southern Mississippi covered it and scored a touchdown to cut Nebraska’s lead to 29-21. Riley said the Huskers were prepared for it; he wasn’t sure how they didn’t field it.
Southern Miss tried a fake punt, but failed to complete the pass.
“We didn’t get the exact look we wanted,” USM coach Todd Monken said, “and we weren’t lined up right anyway.”
Nebraska took over at the USM 39. Four plays later, Armstrong ran in a touchdown from 16 yards out and Nebraska led 36-21.
USM answered with a quick touchdown — seven plays, 75 yards, 2½ minutes of game clock. Nebraska got the ball back. Cue up Armstrong on third-and-19, making yet another play to bail out the inconsistent efforts around him. From his vantage point, Armstrong said the pass looked similar to his game-deciding interception at Miami last week. It just ended differently.
So did this game. Nebraska failed to run out the clock, and Brown had a game-icing field goal deflected at the line of scrimmage. Mullens completed two passes so the Golden Eagles quickly reached the NU 40, but redshirt freshman defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun ended the game by tearing around his man and sacking Mullens as the clock ran out.
“I didn’t know what the time was,” Akinmoladun said, “but I was like, ‘We need a play; somebody needs to step up,’ and I was given the opportunity to step up.”
The shaky second half will cause some heartburn. But NU’s coaches and players weren’t apologizing afterward. It has been a heart-stopping month of nonconference play. Here comes the Big Ten.
The West Division is, in particular, a real scramble drill.
“We’ve won a couple of games and we have lost a couple of really close games,” Riley said. “... We’ve been through a lot of different situations, which I hope will be very good learning for us as you stack your experiences up and hopefully get better.”
|Yards per carry||0.5||6.2|
Nebraska is 5-1 all-time against Southern Miss.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
Nebraska has played 15 games on Sept. 26. See them all »
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