Tanner Lee’s debut was anything but boring.
Nebraska appeared to have a victory nearly locked up Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, but Arkansas State scored in the final minute to get within seven points, recovered an onside kick and marched to the Huskers’ 11-yard line in the final seconds.
A Justice Hansen pass attempt sailed high through the back of the end zone as time expired, however, and Mike Riley’s team escaped with a season-opening, 43-36 win over the Red Wolves.
“We’ve talked all along that this was going to be a darn good football team and they were going to give us fits controlling and moving the football,” Riley said. “And they did. ... I think we ran into a buzz saw tonight, a team that played really well against us."
The Huskers earned a victory despite giving up 497 total yards of offense, largely because of the quarterback making his debut.
Lee took his first hit in more than two years on Nebraska’s first drive, just like he wanted.
Once that was out of the way, he set about the business of delivering on the expectations that followed him from Tulane, while playing in front of 90,171 expectant fans.
The redshirt junior backed up rave reviews from coaches and teammates, throwing for 238 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I thought the quarterback was really efficient and made some really nice throws,” Riley said. “For his first game back in awhile, I thought he was excellent."
Nebraska finished with 463 yards of offense, including 225 on the ground. Riley lauded that balance and a turnover-free outing as, "a snapshot of what our offense can be."
The Huskers needed every bit of the production, too, especially early on when Red Wolves quarterback Hansen marched his team to first-half scoring drives of 87, 61 and 43 yards.
ASU rolled up 48 first-half plays, including 28-of-36 passing from the redshirt junior, en route to 289 first-half yards.
"It's crazy, it's hard," Riley said of defending so many plays. "We were having a hard time finding a way to stop, mostly, the bubble screen stuff out there and they kept plugging away."
Whenever the Huskers got the ball back, though, Lee used his steady demeanor and big arm to move NU down the field.
He was nearly intercepted on his first attempt, which was late and across the middle, but rarely missed his mark afterward. He rainbowed a perfect deep post to Stanley Morgan for his first touchdown pass as a Husker, a 44-yard connection after the junior wide receiver beat single coverage to the middle of the field. He drove a 26-yard corner route to the far hash, again to Morgan, in the second quarter. In between, he made good decisions, accurate reads and generally looked good helming Danny Langsdorf’s offense.
“We’ve known what he can do and we just have to give him time back there,” center Cole Conrad said of Lee. “He’s a special player.”
Lee took three early hits, including a first-quarter, third-down sack deep in his own territory in which right guard Tanner Farmer and right tackle David Knevel failed to stop linebacker Caleb Caston. The right side also faltered in a backed-up situation in the second quarter. ASU drove into the red zone, but Huskers defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun tipped a Hansen pass and linebacker Tyrin Ferguson intercepted it at the 1. However, ASU linebacker Kyle Wilson came free and stuffed sophomore running back Tre Bryant in the end zone for a safety that drew the Red Wolves within 24-16.
"We're a work in progress," Langsdorf said of the offensive line. "We ran it pretty well and we had some silly penalties and some protection errors. We had a couple of run-throughs that were bad that gave up big hits on the quarterback, which we can't have."
For the most part, though, the line gave Lee time and Bryant room to operate. The sophomore I-back made his case as Nebraska’s featured runner, finishing with a career-best 192 yards and a touchdown on 31 attempts.
Lee engineered a 70-yard scoring drive to open the second half that the Huskers needed badly after their defense was on the field extensively in the opening 30 minutes.
Bob Diaco's group started with back-to-back three-and-outs, but then struggled to contain Hansen and the ASU passing attack. Against mainly 8-to-10-yard cushions from the Huskers’ cornerbacks on the perimeter, Hansen completed 46 of 68 attempts for 415 yards and three touchdowns to go along with a pair of interceptions.
”Sometimes what happens with that (run-pass option) stuff is they get a little bit of stuff going, some with the inside run but mostly with the, what I call bubble screens out there,” Riley said, while reiterating he’s happy with the overall direction of the unit. “He was very accurate with them and they did a nice job of blocking on the edge.
“I thought the times we gave them the big play because of a missed tackle were probably the things that hurt us the most.”
Hansen's 68 attempts tied for the most ever against Nebraska and his 46 completions were one shy of the record, both marks reached by Tim Rattay in 1998. Hansen rarely sat in the pocket, however, and the Huskers were credited with just one sack and five quarterback hits.
"I'm sure that the verdict on that is no," Riley responded when asked if the NU defense created enough pressure, but he also added that the run-pass option and quick passing game ASU used puts defense in a bind. "The ball comes out so fast on those, that it's like, why exactly do you want to blitz and then not have more people to cover the bubble passes? You've got to make some really hard judgments about when and if you should blitz."
Hansen rolled throughout the first half but saw his production virtually halted in the third quarter. NU held ASU to 43 yards on 10 third-quarter plays.
Senior safety Joshua Kalu intercepted Hansen at the Huskers’ 48 on the second play of the fourth quarter, furthering a much-improved second-half effort to that point.
The Red Wolves roared back, though, with the late touchdown, the successful onside kick -- it took a big hop right over senior wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El's outstretched arms -- and the ensuing drama.
In the end, the Husker defense held when it needed to most.
“Everybody just had to get a level head and we realized it was up to us to finish the game,” sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “We knew we had to tighten up. … We got the ‘dub’ and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”