JD Spielman had one thing on his mind after Arkansas State’s Blaise Taylor took an NU punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Get it back.
“After I saw their punt returner take it to the end zone, I remember looking over at their sideline and they were all jumping up and down and super-excited,” Spielman said. “And I remember thinking in my mind, I can’t wait to shut that down.”
Spielman did just that, zipping 99 untouched yards for a kickoff return touchdown on the first touch of his college career.
It was Nebraska’s first kick return for a touchdown since 2013.
The redshirt freshman from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, said last week he wanted to be something special on kick returns.
Turns out he didn’t have to wait long to make his mark.
Spielman also had two catches for 44 yards.
“It felt good to finally get the opportunity. Because last year I was super-close to playing, even on kick return or as an actual wide receiver,” Spielman said. “It felt good that the whole year of hard work was able to pay off and I was able to get that kick return.”
Two gaffes mar special teams’ night: Despite the effective kicking from Drew Brown and punting from Caleb Lightbourn, two special teams plays cost the Huskers dearly. First, a coverage breakdown led to Taylor’s 63-yard score. Then, the onside kick in the final minute that nearly allowed ASU to tie the game.
“The punt return, up to that point I don’t know if they’d had even a first down,” Riley said. “We kind of ignited them a little bit. … Those situations where a guy fumbles it, somebody relaxes or takes a bad angle because of the fumble and you see the results there.”
The onside kick appeared to bounce directly over senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El’s head and then rattled around before the Red Wolves recovered.
“I’ll have to look at that and see what kind of holes there were,” Riley said. “It was a great kick. It took a great hop at just the wrong time and our guy, I don’t think he mistimed it, it just went over his head. Before I say anything about the mistakes we made on it, I’ve got to see it.”
Overall, Brown recorded five touchbacks on eight kickoff attempts and buried his only field goal attempt, from 41 yards with 1:02 remaining in the first half.
Lightbourn twice pinned the Red Wolves inside their own 5 — once from the ASU 39 and once from the ASU 40 — and also logged two boots of 50-plus yards, including a game-best 54.
“It’s two jobs: getting the offense out of a bad situation and putting the defense in a good situation,” Lightbourn said.
Costly penalties a sore spot for Huskers: NU committed seven penalties for 65 yards in the season opener, but three in particular hurt.
Defensive lineman Carlos Davis hit ASU quarterback Justice Hansen late on a third-down pass attempt that fell incomplete in the first half, giving the Red Wolves a fresh set of downs. They scored three plays later when Hansen hit tight end Blake Mack for a 3-yard touchdown to close within 24-23 with 3:45 remaining in the first half.
The Huskers also had two holding penalties on a third-quarter drive that stalled out in their own territory, one of the few times on the night that they didn’t sustain some type of drive.
“Two bad penalties that helped them a lot,” Riley lamented.
One more stop: Linebacker Luke Gifford said the Husker defense was ready, just in case the Huskers did not recover an onside kick with 47 seconds left in the game.
“We were ready to roll,” Gifford said. “Coach (Bob) Diaco always preaches to be alert. We knew we could have an opportunity to be called back up, so we were ready to roll when we got that opportunity.”
Arkansas State recovered the kick and got to the 11-yard line, but had two incomplete passes to end the game.
“For us, it’s do-or-die; we love that. That’s what we live for,” Gifford said. “We preached that, so when we get that opportunity it's like, ‘OK, it’s game on; let’s get it. Everybody responded pretty well.”
First starts: Six Huskers made their first career start in the game, including tight ends Connor Ketter and Tyler Hoppes, quarterback Tanner Lee, I-back Tre Bryant, linebacker Luke Gifford and cornerback Eric Lee Jr.
Lee finished with seven tackles, tied for second-most on the team, including five solo.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” said Lee of his first start. “There were a lot of mistakes we got to clean up going into next week, but it was fun.”
Farniok next man up: When senior right tackle David Knevel had to come out of the game due to an injury in the fourth quarter, redshirt freshman Matt Farniok replaced him.
Knevel did not appear to be seriously hurt, as he walked off under his own power. Farniok, a 6-foot-6, 310-pounder from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was also listed at No. 2 on the depth chart this week.
-- Brent C. Wagner