September 24, 2017
Nebraska closes every Thursday practice by running the victory formation. Quarterback Tanner Lee takes a couple of steps back and drops to a knee, the linemen ease up and the offense milks off the final seconds of, well, victory.
For the first time in four games this season, the Huskers put the formation to good use Saturday, and boy, did it come at the most needed time.
Lee threw two touchdown passes, junior running back Devine Ozigbo ran a career-high 24 times for 101 yards, the defense created two turnovers and Nebraska exhaled mightily after its 27-17 victory over Rutgers at Memorial Stadium to begin Big Ten Conference play.
Nebraska (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) emerged victorious to end a tumultuous week. The Huskers were coming off an upset loss to Northern Illinois and were facing difficult questions after learning they would end this season with a different director of athletics than the one with whom they began.
Rutgers (1-3, 0-1) extended its Big Ten Conference losing streak to 15 games, although Nebraska had to rally twice.
The Huskers did it behind a defense that began the day without starting safety Joshua Kalu and starting linebacker Marcus Newby, both injured. Making matters more difficult, junior safety Aaron Williams exited the game in the first quarter because of a targeting foul.
Meanwhile, the offense played without injured starters Tre Bryant at running back and Stanley Morgan Jr. at wide receiver, and started a true freshman at right tackle after the two players above Brenden Jaimes on the depth chart, senior David Knevel and redshirted freshman Matt Farniok, also sat with injuries. Michael Decker made his first career start at center, in place of injured Cole Conrad.
“I am very proud of these kids,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “You know, there were a lot of new faces, and some of them, this was their first time out there today. They made some plays, and then what was great was when adversity snuck up on us again, and the guys just kind of came back and stuck to it and won the game.”
Riley and his staff seemingly found a winning formula – a consistent running game, solid defense and a big play from a consistent special teams unit – that should help these Huskers stay on the winning track, if they can avoid the adversity to which Riley referred.
More on that in a bit.
First, let’s focus on what went right, beginning with a rushing attack that used two backs, instead of one, as Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon helped Nebraska surpass 200 rushing yards (a number that officially dipped to 197 because of the negative runs on the aforementioned victory formation.)
Ozigbo certainly breathed life into the rushing game, as the crowd roared each time the seldom-used junior burst through a hole and drug tacklers with him.
“He is just so consistent, just a bruising back,” Lee said, “and it’s huge to have that on your team, especially in games like today, where you can kind of milk the clock a little bit and just give the ball to him and pick up first downs and get the tough yards. That was big. I am happy for Devine.”
Devine is also happy for Devine. No, that’s not as self-centered as it sounds. Merely, he was happy and relieved to contribute once again, after disappearing from the rotation in the season’s first three games.
“Going through fall camp, I was fighting for the (starting) spot, and then come to find out right before the first game, I might not be able to play as much,” Ozigbo said. “So I kind of got a little down, but probably midweek in preparation for Arkansas State, I was like, ‘I might not be where I want to be right now, but if my number is called, I definitely got to be ready to prove myself right.’ ”
And that’s what happened on an unseasonably hot day Saturday. Because of the heat, Riley wanted to spell Wilbon as much as possible. The strategy worked, with Wilbon running 14 times for 79 yards, and Ozigbo running as many as five plays in a row in the second half.
Meanwhile, the defense continues to show improvement since the barrage of points Oregon scored in the first half of a game two weeks ago. In two games and a half since then, the Blackshirts have surrendered just two touchdowns.
Rutgers’ offense scored one on its first possession Saturday, and then managed only a field after a turnover.
“We knew that was it,” said senior linebacker Luke Gifford, whose interception allowed for the victory formation. “We were making sure it was the last drive that they were going to get. Then soon as we got that lead back this time, we pointed to last week and said, ‘That’s not happening. It’s not happening this week. We have to make a stop, and once the offense gives us a lead, we were going to keep it.’ ”
Rutgers managed a meager 194 total yards, the fewest Nebraska has allowed in year three of the Riley era. The previous low total came just last week, when Northern Illinois had 213 yards.
Senior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, who caught three passes for 22 yards, ignited his team with a 63-yard punt return in which he danced around two oncoming Rutgers players, tight roped the sideline, then cut back across the field into wide open space. That set up Wilbon’s 4-yard touchdown run that gave Nebraska a 17-10 lead.
So with an offense that rushed for nearly 200 yards and controlled the ball, a defense that held Rutgers to 3.6 yards per play and forced two turnovers, and a steady special teams unit that offered a big play, why was Nebraska still tussling with a team that hasn’t beaten a Power 5 Conference opponent in almost two years?
An inconsistent passing game kept Nebraska from a much more comfortable victory.
Lee threw two interceptions, resulting in 10 Rutgers points. For a third straight game, he threw an interception the opposition returned for a touchdown, and not only that, he completed a mere 50 percent of his passes Saturday, for 109 yards.
Simply put, Nebraska needs more consistent play at quarterback if it’s to continue to gain momentum – especially when so many other needed ingredients appear ready to help win games.
Riley expressed his faith in Lee, choosing to stick with the Tulane transfer even when adversity struck again.
“He’s played so much more,” Riley said. “It has nothing to do with how we feel about Patrick (O’Brien), either. This guy has been in the games, and he sucked it up and made some throws.”
Indeed, give Lee credit for completing 6 of 8 passes for 53 yards on a mammoth 97-yard, 17-play drive in the third quarter that ate up more than 8 minutes of game clock, as Nebraska possessed the ball for nearly 23 minutes of the second half. Lee ended the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Pierson-El to put Nebraska head to stay, 21-17.
“It just shows that that guy, he really does play by the next snap, where the snap before doesn’t matter,” junior guard Jerald Foster said of Lee, a fellow team captain.
“I am happy, having a quarterback in Tanner, having somebody that understands the game, as serious as he is to keep us going. Putting it on his back is easy. It definitely is. As an offensive line, I feel like we definitely get our encouragement, we get our push and the grind from that guy. He definitely helps us go forward.”
Lee was equally thankful for the offensive line keeping him upright – Rutgers had zero sacks – and, more importantly Saturday, for giving a push in the running game.
“It’s huge, and I think that’s the reason we won the game,” Lee said. “We got behind our offensive line, they wanted to take over the game, and that’s exactly what they did. So that was huge for us.”
Almost as huge as the victory formation.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.