JD Spielman on Saturday was Tanner Lee’s third-down target.
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley talked recently about the slot back’s traditional third-down role in his offense, and Spielman on Saturday was up to the task.
Five of his game-best six catches came on third down, and he converted four (totaling 65 yards) first downs. He likely would have been 5-of-5 if he could have more effectively used right guard Tanner Farmer to avoid linebacker Ryan Connelly on a first-quarter screen.
“He’s going to get better and better as he understands how to play in the slot, and the things he can do in the slot,” Riley said Saturday.
Lee targeted Spielman targeted 11 times total and finished with 79 yards. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf continue to find unique ways to get him involved.
At one point, he and tight end Jack Stoll both lined up in the backfield next to Lee in the shotgun. Stoll stayed into protect and Spielman ran a wheel route, which Connelly defended well enough to force an incompletion near the goal line. On the next play, Spielman got his hands on a corner route in the back corner of the end zone, but couldn’t haul it in through tight coverage.
“Pretty close to having a few other plays tonight … that I think he'll come up with eventually,” Riley said. “He’s a tough kid, he’s smart, he’s really a great guy to have on our team. I've had all different kinds of slot backs, but his prototype is one that can really, I think, be exciting in there.”
* In addition to Spielman missing a couple of close opportunities, others did, too. Senior De’Mornay Pierson-El had a ball on his hands — albeit, through double coverage — in the end zone and couldn’t come down with it.
* The Huskers offensive line deserves credit, especially from this reporter, who thought it would struggle with UW’s front seven.
The Badgers did supply some pressure, but didn’t record a sack until bringing down redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien in the waning moments of a three-score game.
Wisconsin outside linebacker Garrett Dooley caused some problems, and Lee did have to get rid of the ball quickly at times, but more often than not he was able to stand in the pocket, survey his options and make good decisions.
The Huskers front line made a statement right from the start with a 13-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, and played well all the way through. The only problem: They were only on the field for 8 minutes, 21 seconds in the second half.
* Fullback Luke McNitt helped the cause early on, supplying several effective blocks from the H position. In an increased role, McNitt blocked play-side on a few zone runs and served as the kick-out man in NU’s gap scheme. He helped facilitate better production from the Huskers’ power plays by taking on various Badgers defenders in the hole.
He de-cleated linebacker Arrington Farrar on the second series, stoned linebacker Chris Orr to begin the third and also put punishing blocks on Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs.
* The Blackshirts used 16 players on the first drive alone and rotated heavily throughout. With injury returners at both linebacker and in the secondary, the Huskers started Ben Stille to the boundary at outside linebacker and Luke Gifford to the field. Joshua Kalu replaced Antonio Reed at safety.
Reed, linebackers Marcus Newby and Sedrick King and cornerbacks Chris Jones and Dicaprio Bootle all saw snaps on the defense’s first series.
* A diagnosis of the first-possession pick-six is here. One other thought: Right tackle Brenden Jaimes tried to cut block Dooley, but the senior outside linebacker defeated it. He didn’t get a hand on the ball, but still flashed. That could have played a role in Lee throwing the ball just a touch behind Devine Ozigbo.
Stanley Morgan stood right in and made a gutsy effort to block Chris Orr, who outweighs him by 30 pounds. Their collision actually resulted in Orr winding up right where the ball popped up. Not much you can do about that part of it.
* The Huskers had a pair of punt-return penalties in the first half, and neither seemed likely to affect De’Mornay Pierson-El’s return. They resulted in backing the offense up from NU 48 to the 32, then from the NU 44 to the 16.
UW linebacker T.J. Edwards just tripped Pierson-El up on his first return of the third quarter. If the Huskers can avoid penalties, the senior receiver seems to be heating up in the return game.
* A pair of opening-day starters on the offensive line — senior right tackle David Knevel and junior center Cole Conrad — saw action on NU’s field-goal shield. Knevel (right foot stress fracture, high ankle sprain) is getting closer to being available at tackle and Conrad appears to have lost his starting job to sophomore Michael Decker.
* Freshman receiver Tyjon Lindsey didn’t catch a pass and has just nine receptions through six games, but he was a pesky blocker on Stanley Morgan’s 80-yard touchdown. Lindsey lined up cornerback Derrick Tindal for a good 10 yards and then had him locked up for 15 before planting him on his backside as Morgan raced into the end zone.
* Chris Weber went down late in the game and didn’t return. The trainers appeared to be working on his right leg and he did interviews after the game with a large ice bag on his right knee/quadriceps area.
* Freshman linebacker Avery Roberts was on the field for the final two snaps, including a kneel down.