By the time Luke Gifford hauled in his first career interception with 54 seconds remaining Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the outcome had already been decided.
Still, on the West sideline, University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds' arms, clad in red-checked sleeves, shot above his head and he let out a last triumphant yell.
The Huskers’ ills are not all suddenly cleared. Perhaps not even close.
The program’s long-term future is not much clearer than it was at midweek. Perhaps it won’t be for some time still.
The Huskers still face an uphill climb to compete in the Big Ten. Perhaps even to qualify for a bowl game.
That didn’t make Saturday’s Big Ten-opening 27-17 victory over Rutgers in front of a lively announced crowd of 89,775 any less sweet for NU’s players, its head coach or its president.
“I am very proud of these kids,” head coach Mike Riley said. “What was great was, when adversity snuck up on us again, the guys just kind of came back and stuck to it and won the game. That was pretty special. That part of it was outstanding.”
The Huskers, using a re-discovered backfield rotation that churned out 197 rushing yards (4.2 per attempt) and a defense that has continued to make strides — and on Saturday, big plays — snapped a two-game losing streak and opened conference play on a high note.
The win came as, at least, a silver lining to cap a tumultuous week in the program that included Thursday’s firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
“We obviously try to focus on that, but you can always hear it,” Gifford said. “Coach Riley always talks about how we can control what we can control. It’s about the guys in the locker room just really bearing down and going to work, and we did that.”
Early in the third quarter, such a reaction seemed unlikely. Even Riley admitted the moment arrived where he thought the game — and perhaps Nebraska’s season — might be slipping away.
The Huskers' offense started with the ball at its own 25, but quarterback Tanner Lee underthrew a third-down attempt against zone coverage. Rutgers safety Kiy Hester intercepted it and raced 33 yards for a touchdown and a 17-14 lead for the visitors.
It was Lee’s second interception of the afternoon, his Football Bowl Subdivision-leading ninth of the season and the third returned for a score in a seven-quarter span. When Lee trotted back onto the field with the offense for the next drive, a smattering of boos followed and so did a three-and-out in which the Huskers lost 6 yards and looked lost.
“The fans that are booing aren’t really Nebraska fans,” left tackle Nick Gates said. “You heard after that next time we came on, the real fans cheered for us.”
That next drive, indeed, was a monster.
Lee and the Huskers drove 97 yards over 17 plays and 8 minutes, 10 seconds, capped by an 8-yard slant from Lee to senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. Before the drive, Lee was 6-of-14 for 51 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. On it, he completed 6-of-8 for 51 more.
“If we didn’t have that pivotal moment in the game, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did, winning the game and all that,” left guard Jerald Foster said. “So us being able to get it together, drive the ball and really impose our will, it was just a great time for us. I was happy to be a part of it with our O-line, and we were just feeding off each other.”
The game was not decided at 21-17 late in the third quarter, but the Blackshirts had NU in good hands.
Junior safety Antonio Reed, NU’s most experienced secondary player after fellow safety Aaron Williams was ejected for targeting in the first quarter, intercepted Kyle Bolin despite a cast on his hand, setting up a Drew Brown field goal.
Then, NU unleashed Devine Ozigbo, third on the depth chart but deepest in experience, on the Scarlet Knights’ defense over a bruising 12-play, 50-yard drive. Ozigbo delighted the crowd over nine touches and helped chew another 7:19 off the clock before Brown connected on another field goal with 5:59 remaining.
“I definitely wanted to prove something for myself and just show I could do it, said Ozigbo, who finished with 101 yards. “Everybody’s been wishing me good luck and everything, and I wanted to do it for them as well. It’s been built up for a while.”
The past month, Riley has often referenced plays or sequences he considers snapshots of what NU’s offense could be. But perhaps this second half could be the snapshot of the Huskers moving forward.
Nothing fancy on offense and nothing easy on defense.
The offense in the second half: Thirty-two rushes, split among three backs, and just 13 passes. Advantages of 22:14-7:10 in time of possession and 45-19 in plays.
The defense: Just 56 yards and three first downs allowed. Two turnovers. Rotating personnel, gang-tackling and an overall dominant performance after surrendering a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game.
“Last week we had that one drive where we had an opportunity to shut it down and we didn’t,” he recalled. “As 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.’”
That from a unit that finished the game without its two starting safeties, its best cornerback, a starting outside linebacker and his primary backup.
"A lot of new players on the field today," Riley said. "In the end, as we grow, it will be good for us. … There's good guys stepping up for us and getting a lot of playing time that nobody might have expected."
Injuries hurt the offense’s production more, but two new starters on the offensive line fared well. Center Michael Decker and true freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes helped power a rebound effort by the group, which was maligned after last week’s 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois.
Still, wide receiver Stanley Morgan’s inability to play due to a stiff neck handicapped the Huskers’ passing game, particularly after an opening 75-yard scoring drive on which Lee completed all three passes for 40 yards. That included an 18-yard scoring strike to JD Spielman, which doubled as NU’s longest pass play of the day.
From there, Pierson-El set up the offense’s second touchdown with a 63-yard punt return preceding a 4-yard Wilbon scoring run.
“One of the things that we always talk about, and I stole this from John Robinson, ‘The game might be up for grabs for 3 hours and 27 minutes,’” Riley said. “It appears to me that all of ours are like that. … I think that maybe you can learn a lot from being in those circumstances.”
This time, NU also got to celebrate. The university president raised his arms and the coach walked off the field with a smile for the first time since Sept. 2, a day’s battle won even as the cloud of uncertainty remains.