EUGENE, Ore. – Justin Herbert, Royce Freeman and the Oregon Ducks offense ripped off 75 yards in just five plays, 1:18 to open the game. Nebraska blinked and it was down 7-0 to open its first road contest of the season Saturday.
The game had just started and already the Huskers needed to offer up a response. Quarterback Tanner Lee dropped back to pass on the Huskers’ first possession, surveyed the field and fired a deep shot to a streaking junior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. on the left side of the field.
The ball bounced off Morgan’s hands, then his facemask and into the arms of an Oregon defender. Right there, on the first offensive play of the day, the underlying theme of a 42-35 Nebraska loss was revealed.
One bounce here, one play there and the story might have been different for Lee and company. He would finish the day with four interceptions – halfway to the total Tommy Armstrong Jr. put up all of last season – and 22 incompletions.
“I think in every game there are throws you’d like to have back,” Lee said after. “There were some throws on third down I can remember that I wish I could have really gotten into and made the throw. It’s disappointing.”
Lee’s struggles weren’t the lone factor for the Huskers lethargic start – the defense gave up 400 yards and 42 points in the first half before turning things around in the second – but he isn’t entirely free from blame. Teams can’t lose the toxic differential and still expect to win. Nebraska gave up too many explosive plays to Oregon (16 in total) and lost the turnover battle (four to two). Lee’s interceptions were back-breaking, and, after it was all said and done, it was clear he knew it.
The even-keeled, no-nonsense demeanor that had drawn Lee praise all offseason had turned to dejection as he pulled the brim of his black Nebraska hat down as far as he could as he left for the bus.
Lee praised his receivers on the day, calling their play “great” and saying he was saved by several catches from guys up and down the depth chart. “Can’t ask for anything more from them,” he said. And while Lee had his receivers’ backs, like any leader at the position should, there was still disconnect on the day.
Lee missed high an uncharacteristic amount of times. He one-hopped several passes at the feet of guys like Morgan, who grew noticeably frustrated on the sidelines during the first half. He threw outside when Morgan broke off his dig route inside, a play that resulted in one of Lee’s interceptions. Nebraska failed to convert a single third down after the first quarter ended – Lee was 2-for-8 passing over that stretch, throwing two of his picks, being sacked twice and fumbling it once. Perhaps the sellout crowd of 55,000-plus at Autzen gave the Tulane transfer jitters? Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf had a different explanation.
“I think he’s played in big games,” he said. “So I don’t think it was so much that as we were just a little off.”
The offensive unit wasn’t exactly set up for success though. Oregon’s quick-to-start offense put Nebraska behind the eight ball and forced Lee to play outside his comfort zone. Having to score 42 points in one half just to keep up with the opponent is a tall task for even the best offenses in college football, but for Nebraska it’s asking a lot.
“We don’t want to have to throw that many times,” Langsdorf said. Lee tossed it 41 times after logging 32 attempts in the opener. “Unfortunately, when we had that kind of game we were in, we were putting a lot of our eggs in the basket of having to throw and get back in it.”
After a Nebraska touchdown with 2:47 left cut what was once a 28-point deficit to just one possession, the Huskers kicked it deep needing a stop. The defense got it, with a three-and-out in 30 seconds of game clock, and the offense took back over. On the very next play, Lee faced pressure from the edges and saw his pass deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Oregon, effectively ending the game.
Lee’s teammates didn’t say anything to him after the interception. Nothing out of the ordinary, at least. Left tackle Nick Gates just told him to keep his head up and keep slinging it. Wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El said the same.
“It happens, I told him we had him,” Pierson-El said. “Don’t worry about it, stuff happens and you’re not perfect. The defense has us and we’ll make it right.”
Langsdorf was upset with the protection Lee received. “We’ve got to keep trying to get him in a good rhythm,” he said, adding that Oregon does things on defense with its speed and athleticism that can make life difficult, but the Huskers were just too up-and-down all afternoon long.
But despite the poor showing (and some questionable Twitter calls for Lee to be replaced with redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien) Lee’s teammates are still behind him fully.
“He’ll learn from it tomorrow and forget about it and come back next week and keep throwing the rock,” Gates said. “Keep being a leader.”
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.