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Riley confirms winning is difficult

Blackshirts gain momentum, Pierson-El delivers big play as beat-up Huskers edge Rutgers

It was not a jubilant crowd that filed out of Memorial Stadium in the Saturday evening twilight. It was more like a big, collective exhale. There was friendly banter here and there, but lots of furrowed foreheads and much quiet, purposeful walking.

Don’t read too much into that. Nebraskans, after all, are a fairly stoic bunch. But they’re smart football fans, and they know just how much work their team has ahead of it just to reach the middle of the Big Ten West, let alone to contend for the division title. Nothing is coming easily for this offense even when it’s at full strength. With four starters sidelined by injury, it had to push itself to the limit just to beat the Big Ten’s worst team.

Two days after watching their athletic director get the boot, Big Red fans seemed grateful their team had managed to grab a handhold instead of tumbling farther down the mountainside. Led by a Blackshirt defense that seems to be slowly figuring things out, Nebraska held on to beat Rutgers 27-17 in the Big Ten opener to even its record at 2-2.

When Tanner Lee threw his third pick-six of the season to open the second half, giving Rutgers a 17-14 lead, Coach Mike Riley’s already-tenuous job appeared to be slipping through his fingers. In his postgame press conference, Riley acknowledged how badly his team needed the win.

“Winning games are hard,” the coach said. “The kids are happy right now. They know it was hard, they know they played well, and they knew a lot of new parts played an important role. Our two top safeties aren’t playing and our two best corners aren’t playing, so there’s good guys stepping up and getting a lot of playing time.”

The Husker coaching staff was forced by circumstances to improve its depth in the offensive line and defensive backfield, and that may be the best part of this otherwise forgettable game. The depth will be needed at Illinois unless the injury report improves quickly during the short week of preparation.

It’s never a good sign when you desperately need a big play from your punt return game to beat a team that hasn’t won a conference game in two years, but that’s where the confused, beat-up, underachieving Nebraska offense is right now. The Huskers led 14-10 at halftime because they got a big play out of their senior playmaker, De’Mornay Pierson-El, who returned a punt 63 yards to set up his team on the Rutgers 4-yard line with 4:53 left in the first half. Mikale Wilbon cashed it with a 4-yard touchdown run on the next play, giving the Huskers their first halftime lead since the season opener.

Gaining momentum with every series, the Blackshirts stopped Rutgers on fourth-and-1 at midfield. Nebraska took over with 2 minutes left in the half, but missed its chance to extend the lead when Lee misfired on two passes. Riley opted not to call timeouts to get the ball back one more time before the break.

Both offenses seemed to be on mental overload late in the first half. Both coaches seemed grateful to still be in the game, and both were content to let the clock run out.

With center Cole Conrad, right tackle David Knevel, I-back Tre Bryant and wide receiver Stanley Morgan all sidelined by injury, Nebraska’s offense never looked right. Sophomore Michael Decker started his first game at center and Brenden Jaimes became only the fifth true freshman ever to start in the offensive line at Nebraska. The o-line did a serviceable job, all things considered, and Devine Ozigbo came off the bench to rush for 101 yards on 24 carries as the Huskers played ball control, running the ball 47 times for 197 yards and winning the time of possession battle, 35 minutes to 25. It was a good strategy.

Is the defense gaining momentum under Bob Diaco? Despite being without both their starting safeties when Aaron Williams was ejected for targeting during the game’s opening drive, they gave up just 194 yards of total offense against Rutgers, on the heels of a 213-yard effort against Northern Illinois, which are the two best yardage performances for Nebraska’s defense under Riley. The Blackshirts have allowed only 17 points in the last 10 quarters. Sedrick King got his first start at outside linebacker, filling in for the injured Marcus Newby. This defense is not easy to run on, and it has one more tuneup against Illinois before we truly find out how much improvement Diaco can get out of his troops.

Many questions remain for the Big Red, especially on offense.

When will Nebraska’s receivers start to get some separation? The wide receivers and tight ends were supposed to be a strength of this team, but so far they’re not. Lee is not completely to blame for his ongoing passing problems. It will help to get Stanley Morgan, the Huskers’ top pass catcher, back in the lineup. Bryan Reimers also missed the game with an injury.

Coming out of the locker room with a 14-10 lead, with a chance to take control of the game. Instead, the Huskers looked clueless on offense and Lee looked more rattled than ever. Why?

Wilbon lost a yard when the left side of the line whiffed on a block. Then, Langsdorf dialed up a screen pass,which appeared to be open, but Lee threw the ball into the turf at Wilbon’s feet. That’s not easy to do when your running back is less than 10 yards away, but Lee did it. To compound his problems, he threw his third pick-six of the season on the next play. When will the Huskers be able to execute a simple screen pass?

To his credit, Lee kept grinding away. He converted four consecutive third-down opportunities (one by penalty) on Nebraska’s 17-play, 97-yard drive, which he finished with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Pierson-El. With somewhat improved pass protection, he completed 13 of 26 passes with two interceptions and two touchdowns, but his 4.2-yard-per-attempt figure won’t scare any future opponents. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seem locked in to go every snap with Lee this season, no matter what, unless he goes down with an injury, which is quite possible. Lee absorbed a few big hits by Scarlet Knight defenders, although officially they had no sacks and only three quarterback hurries.

A Friday night game with the Illini coming off a bye week is the next challenge. As their head coach says, look for the Huskers to continue making winning look very hard indeed — at least for the immediate future — and their fan base to stay humble.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at tad.stryker@gmail.com

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