Whew! Huskers Persevere In Zany Opener
Tre Bryant didn’t watch the final play of the game.
But unlike, perhaps, many of you, it wasn't because he was nervous.
“I just kept my head down and prayed, yes sir,” the Nebraska sophomore running back said. “It’s just a superstitious thing. I had faith in our defense. I knew we were going to win.”
The crescendo roar told Bryant that Nebraska had indeed forced an incompletion with no time remaining to preserve a zany 43-36 victory over Arkansas State in Saturday night’s season opener at Memorial Stadium.
“I’m glad we won the game. I’ll give a lot of credit to Arkansas State, how they played,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “We talked about that all along, that this was going to be a darn good football team and they were going to give us fits controlling and moving the football, and they did.
“I’m proud we made, obviously, the plays to win the game, and maybe we’ll start thinking that this -- having to play and compete and do all this right now -- will be good for us down the road. We can talk about those possibilities, but frankly we’re just glad we won.”
After Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen’s 68th passing attempt of the game sailed over back of the end zone with zeroes on the clock, Nebraska defenders removed their helmets to reveal faces with blank stares.
Luke Gifford let out a noticeable sigh.
“We’ve always known that we can bow up when we needed to,” Gifford said. “To have that happen early (in the season), it’s definitely not what you want, but it’s a confidence booster, for sure, that we can bow up down there with the game on the line.”
Nebraska (1-0) had built a two-touchdown lead behind the legs of Bryant – a career high 192 rushing yards – and the arm of junior quarterback Tanner Lee – 19-of-32 passing, 238 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Yet Arkansas State (0-1) had those remaining from a crowd of 90,171 biting their nails and perhaps reflecting on those bad-luck finishes of two seasons ago, including a season opening, Hail Mary defeat to BYU.
The Red Wolves scored with 47 seconds remaining to pull within seven points, and then recovered an onside kick – their second attempt of the night – on a ball that bounced perfectly high enough and into the hands of Chris Murray.
Hansen, who completed 46 of his 68 attempts for 413 yards and three touchdowns, guided Arkansas State to the Nebraska 11-yard line, with the help of a personal foul penalty, with 9 seconds remaining.
Sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson batted away one pass, and Hansen’s final attempt sailed over the outstretched arms of receiver Kendrick Edwards.
“We knew it was up to us to finish the game,” Jackson said. “They were already on the plus side of the 50, so we knew we had to tighten up and play good defense.”
Nebraska intercepted Hansen twice and at times in the second half appeared to have an answer for the plethora of quick bubble screens and slants that, in essence, served as the Red Wolves’ version of a running game.
“They’re a team that when they find success at something, they’re just going to keep hitting it over and over and over,” said Gifford, a senior linebacker who led Nebraska with nine tackles, including a couple of hard hits that blew up the aforementioned bubble screens.
Still, Arkansas State completed too many in the first half, when it compiled 289 yards of total offense. It finished with 497.
“They were just making good plays, really," Gifford said. “They played a tough game. They played their butts off. You’ve got to tip your hat to them. They played a really good game. We kind of finally started to get it going in the second half, but we can’t have that happen again, that’s for sure.”
While the defense, debuting its 3-4 look under new coordinator Bob Diaco, produced mixed results, the offense enjoyed a productive, balanced and turnover-free day.
Lee, playing in his first game since 2015 at Tulane, lived up to offseason and fall camp reports. He showed little rust in throwing for 238 yards, the third most by a Nebraska quarterback in his debut.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” Lee said. “I tried to keep myself calm, but I was pumped up, I was excited. It’s something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time, so I took a moment to enjoy myself, and bask in how amazing our fans are, the stadium, and after we just got down to playing ball, it was a good time.”
Lee directed sustained touchdown drives. He displayed his big-play capability with a 44-yard touchdown strike to Stanley Morgan Jr. He showed touch and finesse in lofting a 35-yard pass into the hands of JD Spielman, a ball that only Spielman could touch.
“I thought (Lee) was really efficient and made some really nice throws,” Riley said. “When we didn’t have something, particularly late, he took care of the football and didn’t make a mistake with it.
“For his first game back in a while, I thought he was excellent.”
Few people, though, expected to see a heavy dose of Bryant – including Bryant himself.
Throughout fall camp, coaches wished out load for any one of the three running backs sharing an "OR" atop the depth chart to separate himself from the pack and serve as an every-down, all-purpose back.
Finally, and somewhat secretly, Riley turned to Bryant.
“Late in the week we decided to let him go, let him go and play,” Riley said. “The substitution would be done when he got tired.”
When Bryant sat, junior Mikale Wilbon entered, and even scored his first career touchdown on a 7-yard run.
“We’re fortunate, we’ve got two, maybe three guys that are all-purpose backs,” Riley said. “They can run, they can protect, they can catch. We toyed around with having one of them being a third-down back and all that, but we just decided not to do that and just let Tre play."
Yet Bryant said he had no idea he’d be asked to run a career high 31 times.
Not that he's complaining, of course.
Bryant's 192 rushing yards are the second most by an individual in the Riley era; Terrell Newby rushed for 198 yards in a 2015 victory over South Alabama, and his 140-yard perfomance against Illinois last year was only the second 100-yard rushing performance by a running back under Riley.
That is, until Bryant, who broke four tackles on a 24-yard run and darted 35 yards for his longest carry. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
“I was just going with the flow,” Bryant said. “I know everybody was coming in with their head on straight, all three of us (running backs), so I just came in and followed my O-line for the blocks.”
The offensive line failed him only once, when linebacker Kyle Wilson stuffed Bryant for a safety – that after Nebraska had intercepted Hansen at the Huskers’ 1-yard line.
Nebraska later retreived those points on a fourth-quarter safety after a holding call in the end zone, giving a game that lasted 3 hours, 52 minutes a little bit of everything – including an Arkansas punt return for a touchdown after returner Blaise Taylor initally fumbled the ball; an ensuing Spielman kickoff return of 99 yards for a touchdown; onside kicks, plenty of replay reviews and one breathtaking finish.
“Our team got to experience a lot of things early in the season,” Lee said, “that will be good for us in the long run.”
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