Mike Riley and Scott Booker each stood steadfast in their confidence in senior punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El this week.
Sure, not much had gone right for the unit, or the wide receiver, in the past three games, but he did show signs of life in the second half against Northern Illinois with returns of 10 yards and 7 yards.
Then the first two punts he fielded against Rutgers on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium came with his back turned and netted minus-7 yards.
His season total when Scarlet Knights punter Ryan Anderson loosed a 46-yarder with about five minutes remaining in the first half: six returns for 7 yards.
Not for long.
Pierson-El fielded the punt, stepped around a would-be tackler and then danced along the left sideline near his own 40. He broke free, angled right across the field and raced to the right sideline. Only a good angle from the punter, which forced a redirect into pursuing traffic, kept Pierson-El from scoring. Junior running back Mikale Wilbon took care of that with a 4-yard touchdown run on the next play.
Needless to say, the 63-yard return provided a jolt for the Huskers, who at the time trailed 10-7.
“We all know in those types of games, anything can tip the scales,” Riley said afterward. “I was fearful that (Tanner Lee’s interception that was returned for a touchdown) was going to be the play that tipped them, but what ultimately did was the punt return.”
Offensive line responds: Nebraska’s offensive line heard all week about how bad it played against NIU. It didn’t really need reminding.
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said he thought his group was embarrassed and couldn’t wait to respond.
They did it from the first offensive snap, on which Wilbon had a clear lane and picked up 9 yards.
“We just tried to kind of forget as much as we could about Northern Illinois and move on to the next game,” left tackle Nick Gates said.
The Huskers appeared to play much more soundly up front. One early third-and-long saw multiple Rutgers defenders come through cleanly, but that was more the exception than the rule for NU.
Freshmen right tackle Brenden Jaimes played for the first time and center Michael Decker started for Cole Conrad (ankle, knee).
“I thought (Decker) was good,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It’s hard, you’ve got a big old nose tackle right on you in the 3-4, and he goes in there and has to handle the snaps. I think he had one that was a little off, but other than that I thought he was really solid in there.”
Jaimes steady in debut: Jaimes’ first career start produced no obvious highlights, and that’s probably just fine with the true freshman.
He didn’t get beat badly in pass protection, he held up in the run game and the line combined to not allow a sack.
“A couple of drives during the game he was kind of down on himself,” Gates said. “What is he, 18, 19 years old playing against 20, 21-year-olds? He’s a kind of a baby in college football, and I think he did good.”
Stille fares well after midweek switch: Ben Stille hadn’t played outside linebacker since the spring.
On Wednesday, he moved back to the position from defensive end.
Saturday afternoon, after two days of practice and a walkthrough, he split time there with Sedrick King when injuries held Marcus Newby (hamstring) and Tyrin Ferguson (foot) out of action.
“The first play I definitely had some nerves, but after that it was just playing football,” said Stille, an Ashland native.
Said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: “We’re looking at his practice and looking at his work and we’re saying, ‘Who’s not playing enough?’ This guy knows what to do. He’s tough and rugged. He cares a great deal.”
Defense generated pressure on third down: The Blackshirts didn’t allow an offensive play of longer than 19 yards. They tackled well all afternoon, stuck to assignments and didn’t make any major mistakes.
On third down, they also had some fun.
Diaco multiple times dialed up third-down blitzes when Rutgers was in passing situations. On two late drives, Luke Gifford’s pressure up the middle forced an errant throw that led to Antonio Reed’s interception. The next drive, inside linebacker Chris Weber pressured Kyle Bolin and forced an incompletion.
“It’s awesome,” Gifford said. “I get a little giddy when I hear the call, and we get excited for it because I know we can really get after it. It was fun today.”
Offense converted third downs: On the flip side, the Huskers broke out of a long third-down funk and had an effective day, converting 8-of-17 overall.
That came after a two-week stretch in which NU converted just 8-of-33.
They especially converted on third-and-short (4 yards or less), hitting 5-of-6 before a 2-yard run by Devine Ozigbo in the final minutes when NU was essentially comfortable punting the ball away.
“Huge difference,” Langsdorf said. “You get into third-and-9, and bad stuff happens. We threw a pick-six. Winning on first and second down, getting down into that 2- to 3-yard range where you have the ability to run or pass is a lot easier than a third-and-9. It’s definitely helpful to get success on first and second down and get in those situations.”
Morgan’s absence hurt, but receivers did OK: Junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan jogged around the field with a helmet on about 90 minutes before kickoff, trying to see if his neck would loosen up enough to play.
When it didn’t, the Huskers were down their best receiver.
Morgan entered play leading the Big Ten in receiving yards and, with Bryan Reimers also out, Gabe Rahn stepped into a primary role.
“You’re definitely playing with some different faces that are going to affect your timing a little bit,” Langsdorf said. “I thought Gabe did some nice stuff. On the one vertical he had, he told me he probably should have had it, but I thought those guys filled in pretty well.”
Rahn had two early catches for 27 yards, but also had the drop on a deep ball. He was targeted six times, all in the first half.