Tanner Lee looked like a confident quarterback on Nebraska’s opening drive Saturday.
The redshirt junior found three different receivers for 54 yards and helped march the Huskers 65 yards down the field in six plays. His 36-yarder to senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was set up with a play-fake; Lee stepped up in the pocket to clear a rusher off his right side and delivered a rhythm throw from the left hash to well outside the right.
It would have been impossible to guess at that point that after the game there would be questions about Lee’s psyche and whether or not the staff considered backup Patrick O’Brien after a game in which the offense looked disjointed and out of sync for much of a 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois.
Lee finished 25-of-47 for 299 yards and three interceptions. He has thrown an FBS-high seven interceptions through three games, all in the past eight quarters after a turnover-free opening night against Arkansas State.
“I know this, we have to coach him and support him right now,” head coach Mike Riley said afterward. “I don’t know him well enough him, these kinds of tough situations, but the time I’ve been around him, I’ve been very impressed with him. I think he’ll come back to work and get ready for the next game in a great manner, and I’ve got a lot of confidence that that will occur and that he’ll be anxious to do that.”
Even after Huskies cornerback Shawun Lurry read, timed and jumped a bubble screen perfectly and returned his interception 87 yards for a touchdown on Lee’s fourth attempt, the quarterback didn’t appear rattled. NU went three-and-out twice thanks in part to mustering just 6 yards on three rushing attempts.
On the Huskers’ fourth drive, Lee hit three passes for 26 yards and also had completions of 17 and 18 yards negated by penalties. After 13 minutes, despite those infractions, the signal-caller was 9-of-11 for 96 yards.
Beginning with the second pick-six of the first quarter, though — a play on which Lee got buried when Drequan Brown beat left tackle Nick Gates with an inside rush move — Lee missed on 20 of his last 36 attempts, threw two interceptions, had five passes broken up and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt.
“I think when he gets hit or takes a beating like he has, he’s had some hits and some pick-sixes off of it … those can rattle you a little bit,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “So we have to continue to give him plays that he’s comfortable (with), that he can play quickly, get the ball out of his hands and not take the hits. I think just helping him, giving him plays that he likes, he’s comfortable with, that we can execute, I think that will be important for us, especially going forward.”
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Every part of the Husker passing game faltered at different points.
Lee was sacked three times, hurried seven times and was forced off of his spot several others by NIU pressure. He missed a potential big play to JD Spielman with a high throw over the middle. NU unofficially had four drops, not including a potential touchdown that went off the outstretched fingertips of tight end Connor Ketter late in the third quarter.
“Just not hurting the team with bad plays and finishing drives in the end zone, that’s my No. 1 goal,” Lee said afterward. “I’ll get better at that.”
Fox Sports 1 analyst and former LSU head coach Les Miles observed multiple times that NIU defenders were playing tight and anticipating shorter throws, and suggested the Huskers throw the ball down the field and employ double-moves with their receivers.
Nebraska's only completion for more than 15 yards between Lee’s second attempt and his 38th was a 28-yarder to Stanley Morgan on a short, dangerous throw across the middle that Morgan turned into a big play with a long run after the catch. Langsdorf said afterward that pressure had an effect on that approach.
“I think he would be OK if wasn’t getting hit as much,” the third-year coordinator said of Lee. “You get into that game and they start jumping stuff and you want to push it down the field a little bit, but our protection at times struggles, so that can be, that’s definitely a two-way street.”
In the fourth quarter, Spielman beat Mykel Williams downfield with a stutter-step near the first-down line and Lee threw a good ball for 37 yards to the NIU 2-yard line. Those types of plays — where protection, route, read, throw and catch all came together — too often eluded the Huskers.
“I think we’ve played some good defenses and I think our (receivers) are handling it well,” Lee said. “I’ve just got to get them the ball more often and quicker.”