Nebraska’s first six offensive plays provided so much promise Saturday.
Mikale Wilbon carried for gains of 5 and 7 yards. Tanner Lee completed his first three passes for 54 yards, including 36 to senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El.
The Huskers marched right to the Northern Illinois 10, chewing up nearly 11 yards per play, before it all changed.
Lee tried to throw a quick bubble screen — a staple of NU’s offense — to Pierson-El, but fellow wide receiver Stanley Morgan missed a block and cornerback Shawun Lurry jumped the route, running an interception back 87 yards for a touchdown.
NU coach Mike Riley said afterward that the play was a run-pass option, leaving Lee to decide whether to hand it off or throw the screen.
“He has just a quick bubble, the corner jumps it, we have a blocker for him,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I think he just jumped in front of the blocker. We have to block the corner there. I don’t think he saw the corner sneaking up. We’ve got the ability to hand the ball off there, and the guy gambled and picked it off.”
The Huskers went three-and-out on their next two possessions before a six-play drive that yielded just 14 yards before Lee had another interception returned for a touchdown.
“It felt like we had such a good drive to start off, and for that to be taken so close, that would affect any offense,” left guard Jerald Foster said.
Added Wilbon, “Of course we're trying to score. I think we (were) trying score too fast and it kind of got us a little off rhythm. Yeah, we (were) trying to do too much at a wrong time.”
Receiving day complicated by return struggles: Pierson-El caught eight passes for 101 yards to lead all receivers, but he continued to struggle as the Huskers’ punt returner.
The senior, who led the nation in punt return yardage as a freshman, made two questionable decisions against Oregon and three more against NIU.
He let a short punt hit and roll to the NU 1-yard line.
“I just felt like trying to find a way to get our guys to relax and play ball, down 14, and (having to) start at the minus-1, that was some tough sledding there,” Riley lamented.
Pierson-El fielded the next punt with a man in his face and was dropped at the NU 7 for no gain. He had to scramble to recover the next one when, after trying to wave off teammates, the ball hit him and bounced to the NU 21.
Pierson-El did bounce back some as the game went along, logging returns of 10 and 7 yards.
“You saw some glimpses today,” Riley said. “The other big part of it was some decision-making for sure — whether it’s not catching a short ball, or not catching a medium ball and then catching one too deep. We seemed to have some choices, and the decisions that were made probably hurt us field positionwise.”
No thought of QB switch: Riley said afterward that he never seriously considered pulling Lee for backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien.
His reason was simple.
“I think that sometimes that can give you a spark … if you think that maybe in particular the (quarterback) is not playing real well,” Riley said. “But when it’s protection problems that are put in there, it’s not like another guy is going to change the protection problem necessarily. I thought at that time in the fourth quarter that our best chance to try to win the game was with Tanner.”
Three injured starters dressed: Senior safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring), sophomore running back Tre Bryant (knee) and senior right tackle David Knevel (ankle) each dressed in their game uniforms and did varying levels of warmups Saturday morning, though none of the three played.
Kalu looked fluid while jogging and throwing a ball around with injured cornerback Chris Jones, while Bryant did limited work and sported a slight limp when he left the field. Riley indicated earlier in the week that he hoped Knevel would return to practice Monday or Tuesday.
Riley said linebacker Marcus Newby pulled a hamstring Saturday. Sedrick King, Alex Davis and Tyrin Ferguson saw playing time in his place.
Defense increases backfield presence: Nebraska’s defense was as disruptive as it has been all season Saturday, recording a pair of sacks and nine tackles for loss.
It wasn’t the result of any major schematic changes, NU’s players said.
“I think the quarterback was spending a little more time back there, and I think coverage was really tight, and that was great,” nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “Some guys were more relentless with their pass rush. The twins (Carlos and Khalil Davis) got back there a bunch, and that was awesome seeing them make plays.”
Khalil Davis was the only Husker with more than one tackle for loss, finishing with two for 9 yards. Carlos was one of seven other Huskers with one tackle for loss.
“We had a few opportunities to attack a bit more, which we like to do. There’s a lot of flexibility in the system to do what the situation calls for. And the players did a really nice job preparing all week,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “The defensive players drilled down, worked hard, stayed focused, stayed together, were excited about the prospect of getting better, and approached the week that way and got better. And then went into the game with competitiveness and execution and strain.”
Quick hits: Outside linebacker Alex Davis recorded his first career sack. … NU failed on 15 straight third downs spanning the final three quarters against Oregon and the first against NIU. … The Huskers’ opponents have scored first in seven of their last nine games. … Sophomore NU punter Caleb Lightbourn averaged a career-best 47.3 yards on six punts.