Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mike Riley liked this picture.

He liked most of it, anyway. He didn't like the dropped passes. The ball was on the turf a bit too often in general. But he certainly liked that his Nebraska football team handled Illinois with relative ease Friday night.

He thinks his team played its most complete game of the year in the 28-6 triumph before 43,058 at Memorial Stadium.

Yes, this was a good picture for Riley's program. He needed this win. After all, he's fighting for his job.

He can take a deep breath this weekend, knowing much of the heaviest lifting on the schedule begins next week against Wisconsin and the following week against Ohio State.

His quarterback also can take a deep breath.

"I would bet that that's very possible," Riley said of junior transfer Tanner Lee. "If he was uptight, this would help."

It's difficult to tell if Lee is ever uptight. He approaches the game like, well, a professional. He talked Friday night of maintaining "straight-line focus on the next opponent."

But, yeah, if his confidence wavered during Nebraska's first four games — in which he threw nine interceptions versus seven touchdown passes — this game surely helped matters. 

For one thing, he didn't throw an interception.

For another — and you may not have noticed it — but he actually threw a pass to the sideline. You know, intentionally. Instead of forcing a throw downfield, into the wind, into double-coverage, he just turned and heaved it toward Nebraska's sideline.

Now, that's progress.

Granted, this was Illinois, arguably the worst team in the Big Ten. The Illini have played 20 true freshmen this season, including 10 starters. Lovie Smith's crew ranks last in the Big Ten in both total offense and total defense.

But this was no throwaway game for Nebraska (3-2, 2-0). This was another opportunity to find solid footing after the god-awful home loss to Northern Illinois. Nebraska rebounded last week with a 27-17 win against Rutgers, but Lee wasn't exactly Tom Brady in that one.

I really don't want to be snarky about this topic. Lee is a class act. He's handled the rough start to his Nebraska career with the sort of calm and maturity that many of us expected from the Louisiana native. We just didn't expect that he would be completing only 52.1 percent of his passes through four games.

We expected he would play like he did against Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten). He came out of the gate firing, with passes on four of Nebraska's first five plays. Husker receivers dropped two of those passes. But Lee kept firing. The run game helped ease pressure on him. The protection was good most of the night. And when the final gun sounded, Lee was 17-for-24 passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns.

Did we mention he didn't throw a pick?

For the sake of context, we have to mention he threw three pick-sixes in the last two games. But this was more like it. No question, Riley liked what he saw in this picture — wide passing lanes created by play-action. He liked the offense's balance — 246 passing yards and 165 on the ground.

He had to especially like the second quarter, when the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lee was 9-for-9 for 110 yards and a touchdown.

"I think I had a great feel for what coach (Danny) Langsdorf was calling," Lee said of the Husker offensive coordinator. "We ran plays how they were supposed to be run."

Lee led Nebraska to two second-quarter touchdowns, and the Huskers led 21-3 at half. Riley's team was in control. But work remained, and the third quarter started poorly.

Lee fumbled as he was hit from behind in the pocket on the first play. Offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes pounced on the ball. But NU went three-and-out in part because Lee — under pressure again — misfired to an open Stanley Morgan.

After Illinois kicked a field goal, Nebraska's Devine Ozigbo lost a fumble. The Husker defense held its ground, and Lee went back to work, leading a 14-play, 93-yard drive that pushed the lead to 28-6. It wasn't necessarily a pretty drive. Lee nearly threw an interception — the ball was batted from the linebacker's grasp by tight end Tyler Hoppes. Lee threw behind Morgan on what should've been an easy crossing route.

Lee also gunned a 13-yard completion on a third-and-7 and later a 21-yard strike to Morgan. So, even when the picture was imperfect, Lee kept his poise.

We've always liked that part of his makeup.

On this night, we saw more of the other aspects of Lee that we expected.

We saw him in sustained rhythm.

Riley hopes he sees that picture more and more.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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