When quarterback Tanner Lee threw his third pick-six in two games against Rutgers on Saturday, a hush fell over Memorial Stadium.
Almost like an “oh no, here we go again,” sensation. In a humiliating loss to Northern Illinois last weekend, Lee tossed two to the other guys in the first quarter that were returned to the house. Everyone from head coach Mike Riley to fullback Luke McNitt said the team tensed up afterwards. However, when Lee did so again on the Huskers’ opening drive of the third quarter on Saturday, giving the Scarlet Knights free points and a 17-14 lead, things were different on the sideline.
“It’s just a matter of taking it one play at a time,’ center Michael Decker said.
It didn’t work on the next possession, the Huskers gained 6 yards on three plays and immediately handed the ball back to Rutgers at midfield. But the defense got a stop – a three-and-out of their own – and forced a punt. Rutgers then downed Nebraska at its own 3-yard line. Lee had to come back out, in the shadow of his own end zone, and make something happen.
Before walking onto the field, Riley grabbed him and said “stay with it and stay settled in.” Then the boos came raining down, but Lee was unfazed. He marched the offense 97 yards in 17 plays stretching over the course of eight minutes and 10 seconds to retake the lead.
“It just shows that that guy, he really does play by next snap, where the snap before doesn’t matter, it’s about the next snap,” guard Jerald Foster said of Lee leading that drive. “I’m happy having a quarterback in Tanner, having somebody that understands the game, as serious as he is to keep us going. Putting it on his back is easy.
“As an offensive line, I feel like we definitely get our encouragement, we get our push and the grind from that guy.”
On the drive, Lee was terrific. He completed six of his eight passes for 51 yards, with chain-moving completions of 10 yards and 17 yards and finally culminating with an 8-yard, go-ahead strike to receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El.
“The fact that he responded like he did after the pick-six was really a credit to him, his character and his toughness,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It was really a great response to rough sledding. We were in a bad situation and then we get backed up and it’s just like ‘oh my goodness, what else could go wrong here.’ We kind of fought through it and kept playing and turned it into a touchdown.”
That drive wasn’t a calming one though. In fact, it did the opposite.
“Honestly, I feel like it really pumped us up that we were able to fire out there and systematically drive down the field,” Decker said. “That’s kind of what Coach Langsdorf talks about. Make sure you keep a level head and you have these long drives where you wear the defense out and so when we got off the field after that we were just going crazy just because that was something that we’ve really wanted to do for a while.”
Mission accomplished. From that point on, Rutgers gained 53 yards and failed to score another point. Nebraska racked up 94 of its own and two more field goals, distancing itself from Rutgers and bleeding the clock.
“I would say that if we didn’t have that pivotal moment in the game, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did with the win and everything,” Foster said. “So us being able to get it together, drive the ball, and really impose our will with that 97-yard drive down the field, it was just a great time for us.”
Riley said after the game he tried to take a “been there, done that” approach with Lee and the offense, relying on past experiences at Oregon State to try and keep his guys from crumbling the same way they did against Northern Illinois. Wide receiver Gabe Rahn said the unit is “honestly kind of used to” the roller coaster-like ride so far this season, but they were finally able to show some resolve when it mattered most.
“We got it done,” Lee said. “That was good for us.”
Nebraska’s offense didn’t look great – only 109 yards passing is something even Langsdorf said can’t happen again – but for tonight, Lee and the offense can feel good again knowing they are back in the win column.
“It feels great to get back on track,” Lee said. “Got our first Big Ten win of the season and we will come in tomorrow on a short week and get ready for another one.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.