Rutgers vs. Nebraska, 9/23/17

Rutgers quarterback Kyle Bolin throws a pass Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Bolin threw for 126 yards during the game.

KAYLA WOLF, JOURNAL STAR

Rutgers had Nebraska right where it wanted early in the third quarter Saturday, leading 17-14 with the struggling Huskers pinned inside their own 5-yard line.

Seventeen plays and 97 yards later, Tanner Lee hit De'Mornay Pierson-El in the end zone, Nebraska went up 24-17, and the closely contested game was, for all intents and purposes, over.

"That drive kind of broke our back, that was kind of the difference in the game, that 97-yard drive," said Rutgers coach Chris Ash. "It felt like we were playing really good football until that drive. We wore out. We got tired, made some penalties in costly situations. That was really the game."

The long drive wasn't the only thing that hurt the Scarlet Knights as they attempted to win their first Big Ten Conference game since 2015.

"The bottom line is we made too many mistakes to win the football game on the road," Ash said. "We struggled to stop the run, especially in the second half. We wore out up front. Anytime they can run the ball and we can't run the ball, it's going to be tough to win football games, and that's what happened today.

"We gave up the long punt return. We had two guys unblocked at the point of attack who missed tackles and we gave up points at the end of the first half there. When you do those things you're going to struggle to win games."

And Rutgers gave up a pair of interceptions, including a late third-quarter pick by Antonio Reed that led to a Drew Brown field goal and gave Nebraska a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The pass, quarterback Kyle Bolin said, was a play the Scarlet Knights run often in which the tight end has an option to turn in or turn out. Every time it has been run this year, the tight end turned in — until Saturday, when Bolin made a pass with a Nebraska blitzer heading his way.

"I felt pressure when I saw him (the tight end) nudge inside I was expecting him to turn in," Bolin said. "He went out and the ball went right into the defender's hands."

That wasn't the only issue for Rutgers' offense, which started the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, then managed only 114 yards the rest of the way against a stout Nebraska defense that blitzed more than it had in previous games and showed the Scarlet Knights alignments they'd not seen on film.

"It's hard to win a football game when we have less than 200 yards of total offense," Bolin said. "That's not putting the blame on anybody. I'm not saying its my fault, I'm not saying it's the O-lines fault. I'm not saying it's the wide receivers' fault. I'm not saying it's the running backs' fault. Nebraska is a big, physical defense and the schemes they ran today were different than the schemes we prepared for because they haven't showed it at all this year."

On the positive side of the ledger, Rutgers took a 17-14 lead when Kiy Hester picked off a Lee pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown — something Ash told him he could do during pregame warmups.

"It's a play we run, we just wanted to disguise it," Hester said. "Coach Ash told me in walk-through today to show opposite and you can have a pick-six. I could have had one against Washington. He actually said that in the walk-through. Sure enough, I caught it. That was the first thing he said to me is 'I told you show opposite and you can catch one, steal one.' That was huge right there."

But the Scarlet Knights weren't able to hold up against the grinding Husker offense that held the ball for almost 23 minutes in the second half.

"We got worn down," said safety Saquan Hampton, who had 10 tackles. "We're thin right now in D-line in terms of depth. As the game got on, we got worn down as a defense."

That disappointed Ash, as did the offensive and special teams errors from a team he said is continuing to improve, but can't get the job done on Saturdays.

"We've got to learn to win on gameday, that's really where it's at," Ash said." Competing is not a problem, toughness is not a problem. … The bottom line is we've got to go out and perform and not beat ourselves on gameday."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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