Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Going Deep: Lee Finding Stride Just In Time

By Brian Rosenthal

Slowly, steadily, Tanner Lee is becoming the productive quarterback many envisioned in August, when the Tulane transfer drew high offseason accolades – from some who knew him well, and from some who’d never seen him play.

In any event, the Lee the Nebraska football team has seen over its last four games is the quarterback the Huskers need to finish the 2017 season strong.

Lee, who directed Nebraska’s game-winning touchdown drive Saturday night to defeat Purdue 25-24, is completing 60.4 percent of his passes over his last four games for 1,242 yards, with eight touchdowns and one interception.

Compare that to Lee’s first four games, when he completed 52.1 percent of his passes for 898 yards, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns.

“I think I just really keep my focus on the team and just maintaining my confidence throughout the season and trusting my preparation,” Lee said at Monday’s weekly news conference at Memorial Stadium. “And you know, things I am learning throughout the week in practice and then just being able to apply them to the game is just what I have been focusing on week by week.”

Lee completed 7 of 8 passes, with completions to six different receivers, on the eight-play, 70-yard drive that culminated with his 13-yard touchdown strike to Stanley Morgan Jr. with 14 seconds remaining.

Perhaps coaches have found a tempo to use during other portions of the game that fits Lee’s style as Nebraska (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten) hosts Northwestern (3-4, 1-3) on Saturday at 2:30 at Memorial Stadium.

“I like it,” Lee said. “I like attacking, and I think there is a place and time for it, and we kind of get the defense on their heels and kind of stop them from pressuring sometimes and just be able to complete balls and move down the field.

“That is something I think we are confident in, so I think it’s something we can definitely use.”

Nebraska coach Mike Riley continues to be impressed with not only Lee’s worth ethic, but his calm, cool demeanor that plays especially well in stressful situations – like beginning a drive at your 30-yard line, with no timeouts and 1:22 remaining and your team trailing by six.

“I think it says a lot about Tanner himself,” Riley said Monday. “I think you have to have quite a mentality to play the position. It’s got to be that kind of next-play mentality, because you still have to go out there and make throws now, and he never has backed down from making the throws, and he made some of them under real duress the other night."

Lee, naturally, has become more confident in the offense over time, is taking fewer risky attempts in tight windows and trusting more receivers to make plays, as evidenced by the seven different players catching a pass against Purdue.

“He did his best job the other night of looking down the field for the throw and hitting the check-down, and those were valuable to us down the line,” Riley said. “I admire that growth, and I think it has a lot to do with he’s a tough-minded guy that is still standing there and will make a throw even if it hasn’t gone that well.”

 

Palmer Impressing; Taylor has "juice"

Through two men’s basketball exhibition games against Power 5 Conference teams, transfer guard James Palmer Jr. is proving he can score in a variety of ways, not unlike former Nebraska wing Terran Petteway.

Palmer scored a team-high 23 points in Nebraska’s 92-84 closed scrimmage victory over Iowa State on Sunday in Lincoln. He also led the Huskers with 17 points in an open exhibition charity game at Mississippi State, a game Nebraska won 76-72.

“Quite frankly, he’s been highly, highly productive and his coach doesn’t play him that much,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles quipped at Monday’s news conference. “Might have to look at his minutes.

“But James does just enough to keep me on edge, too. That’s what I love about him.”

A 6-foot-6, 210-pound wing from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Palmer transferred from Miami and sat out last season. Miles has also already noticed one major change in Palmer – his ability to “drive through a nail hole” rather than dribble indecisively outside it.

That partly explains why Palmer got to the free-throw line with regularity against Iowa State – he was 10-of-11 on free throws.

“That’s good, because we’ve needed that type of player,” Miles said. “When at I look at him, he’s a guy that when he’s on the attack, he’s good.”

Miles said the same thing about Petteway, who, like Palmer, sat out a season after transferring from a Power 5 Conference school. Petteway led Nebraska in scoring each of his next two seasons with the Huskers.

Palmer has similarities, especially in his ability to score in transition, put the ball on the floor and drive, and draw contract and get to the foul line.

Miles said Palmer played three positions against Iowa State, and he also likes his ability to come off screens and shoot. Palmer was 6-of-12 shooting.

“He’s jumping into a bigger role,” Miles said, “so that’s a bigger adjustment for him.”

Meanwhile, junior guard Glynn Watson Jr. (6-of-9 shooting, 19 points) is playing “like an all-league guard,” Miles said, and senior guard Evan Taylor (above) is impressing as an all-around player. Taylor had six points, six assists and three rebounds against Iowa State, picked to finish fourth in the Big 12.

“Taylor has juice, athletic ability, quickness, and motor,” Miles said. “He plays hard defensively. He’s been a rock for us. His standard for work in practice is outstanding.”

Wild Ride

Veteran coach John Cook has a mantra with his Nebraska volleyball team that says “the great ones adjust.”

Let’s assume he generally points to that for on-court adversity, not for whether enough Uber drivers exist in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a Sunday morning to haul an entire Big Ten volleyball team to its match.

Yet that’s what happened when the Nebraska team bus broke down twice on its weekend trip to Michigan State and Michigan.

“The next thing I know, the tow truck is towing our bus away,” Cook said, “and Lindsay Peterson went into boss lady mode and started whipping up Ubers.”

The ride-sharing service provided eight or nine vehicles, Cook said, ranging from tiny cars to mini vans. Just enough to haul Nebraska’s travel party of 30, and its luggage and equipment.

“We were piling everything in there,” Cook said. “It was classic.”

Nebraska adjusted, at least well enough to sweep Michigan and complete a 2-0 weekend that leaves the Huskers in control of first place of the Big Ten Conference standings.

Cook remembers a few years ago, on Nebraska’s trip through Michigan, when a traffic accident on the interstate made the Huskers late for a match it also won, 3-0.

“Maybe warmups are overrated,” he said, laughing.

 

 Needing a Rush

Here’s a statistical oddity: Nebraska, which ran for a mere 40 yards against Purdue, hadn’t won a football game rushing for so few yards since 2005, when it ran for 36 yards, yet defeated Iowa State 27-20 in double overtime in Lincoln.

In that game, junior transfer quarterback Zac Taylor threw for 431 yards.

On Saturday, junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee threw for 431 yards.

Not often does Nebraska win despite a sputtering rushing attack. Since the Bill Callahan era, (2004-present), Nebraska had won 11 times before Saturday when rushing for 125 yards or fewer, including that game against Iowa State. Here are the other 10:

 

Nebraska 26, Clemson 21, 125 yards (2008);

Nebraska 24, Pittsburgh 17, 123 yards (2004);

Nebraska 25, Maine 7, 121 yards (2005);

Nebraska 31, Wake Forest 3, 120 yards (2005);

Nebraska 24, Wake Forest 17, 115 yards (2007);

Nebraska 41, Ball State 40, 114 yards (2007);

Nebraska 27, Missouri 12, 105 yards (2009);

Nebraska 17, Kansas State 3, 101 yards (2009);

Nebraska 35, San Jose State 12, 99 yards (2008);

Nebraska 27, Kansas State 25, 93 yards (2005)

 

That’s not something Nebraska wants to repeat often; however, the Huskers are averaging only 121.9 rushing yards per game and facing a Northwestern defense that’s holding teams to 118 rushing yards per game.

“We certainly never intended for it to be like this with the running stats,” Riley said. “We are going to continue to try to strive to be that team, and then do what we need to do to win the game.”

Riley said leaning on a select group of run plays that work consistently and repeatedly is one option to help the running game.

“I don’t think it is wise to have a whole bunch of stuff to try to execute against this defense,” Riley said. “I think if we can get some balance going and some counter-type plays going, you know, curve-ball plays to what might be a base run or two would be good.”

Costly Victory

While we’re on the subject of rushing the football, now’s a good time to remind you Nebraska’s offensive line is rearranging once again after injuries in the Purdue game, including one potential season-ender.

Riley said sophomore center Michael Decker is out indefinitely and could miss the rest of the season with a leg injury, and that right guard Tanner Farmer will miss extended time with a high ankle sprain.

That means junior Cole Conrad (above), who began the season at center, and then replaced Decker after Decker suffered injury at Purdue, will return to center against Northwestern. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Matt Farniok will replace Farmer at guard – a position Riley said best suits the 6-6, 315-pound Farniok because of his physicality and strength.

Farniok began the season as a back-up tackle and started in place of injured David Knevel before suffering a broken bone in his wrist. He made the move to guard during the bye week before Purdue, and replaced Farmer when Farmer suffered injury.

In other injury news, safeties Antonio Reed (knee) and Aaron Williams (neck) are questionable against Northwestern, and sophomore cornerback Eric Lee Jr. is in the concussion protocol. Freshman running back Jaylin Bradley is also questionable with a high ankle sprain.

Linebackers Tyrin Ferguson (foot) and Luke Gifford (hip) didn’t play against Purdue. Ferguson remains out for an “extended time,” Riley said, and Gifford is questionable to play Saturday against Northwestern.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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