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 had 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 Nebraska’s 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 return that 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.”
|Yards per carry||2.8||4.2|
Nebraska is 4-0 all-time against Rutgers.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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