On the second-to-last offensive possession for the Huskers in their season-opener against Arkansas State, Nebraska had a third-and-5 from the Arkansas State 40-yard-line with a chance to extend a drive that had begun with nine minutes left in the game and Nebraska up 15.
Quarterback Tanner Lee dropped back to pass, but almost immediately saw pressure and was forced to rush a throw to receiver J.D. Spielman that fell low and away. The drive stalled and Nebraska punted away with just under seven minutes left on the clock.
“It was a three-man rush and we got hurried on the three-man pressure, which is silly with five protectors, so we needed to execute better on that play,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after practice Tuesday. “It would have given us a first down, taken some time off the clock, reset the chains. I was disappointed in that one.”
By now, you already know how the game ended. Arkansas State made a late run with a touchdown and onside kick recovery, but Nebraska clung to a 46-37 win. Now that he’s had time to watch the film, digest and cut some things up, Langsdorf knows his offense needs to be better at finishing things off.
“We had a great stretch where we had three touchdown drives, we had a field goal in there, we had good production and then we had two three-and-outs,” he said. “I felt we probably did more damage to ourselves than them. They did a nice job playing us but we also made some mistakes that killed some drives. We’ve got to be able to play mistake-free for longer, sustained drives.”
Nebraska dominated time of possession, controlling the ball for 32:18 compared to 27:42 for the Red Wolves, but there were eight penalties called on the Huskers throughout the game, including several holding calls and false starts. There were also protection issues, and just general things that need tightening, things that come with the first week of play for any team.
“I don’t think we handled some of the protection stuff well, we took too many hits, missed a couple throws, dropped a few balls, had some silly holding penalties,” Langsdorf said. “We had definitely some things to clean up in that game.”
On that late third down miscue, there’s no sugarcoating it. “We needed a first down,” Langsdorf said. And assuming they had been successful, the Huskers could have run off another minute or two, at least, of game clock before either scoring or handing the ball back to Arkansas State. Either way, the Red Wolves' chances of being in a situation to tie things up late would have decreased dramatically.
“You get late in the game and you get in a four-minute situation and you’ve got to get a first down,” Langsdorf said. “That’s a big part of closing games out.”
Nebraska’s offense scored 46 points in the opener and almost eclipsed the 500-yard mark, both marks of a successful offensive outing, but against an Oregon team this week that has already shown the ability to light up the scoreboard – see 77 against Southern Utah – Langsdorf knows Nebraska needs to be able to close games out more effectively and not leave points on the board.
Other news and notes
>> After having the day off Monday to rest a nagging hamstring, linebacker Marcus Newby returned to practice Tuesday.
Wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, however, did not practice due to a shoulder injury, but said he will return soon.
Starting right tackle David Knevel also missed Tuesday and was seen in a walking boot. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said the boot was precautionary to address a sprain and the team doesn't expect him to miss Saturday's game.
>> Against an aggressive 3-4 defensive front like the one the Ducks will employ against the Huskers on Saturday, Langsdorf said getting Spielman, the starting slot back, involved early will pay major dividends.
“The coverages that they play, they do a nice job of changing things up, they disguise well, give you a lot of different looks, so that inside receiver is big,” he said. “A lot of times, he’s critical in finding the hole in the zone. I think like any receiver, get him into it early and get him a few touches.”
Langsdorf added that’s especially important given it will be Spielman’s first road game in a Husker uniform.
>> Speaking of the environment, Nebraska is preparing for a raucous crowd when it arrives at Autzen stadium in Eugene, Oregon. On Monday, head coach Mike Riley called Autzen one of the top five loudest places he’s coached in, and on Tuesday, Langsdorf said the same.
“They don’t have a huge stadium but it’s really a rowdy crowd,” he said. “We’ve had trouble even hearing on the phones before between the box and the field. It’s going to take a lot of concentration and poise.”
In order to prepare, Nebraska has been piping in artificial crowd noise during practices this week to try and simulate the environment Saturday, as well as preparing throughout all of fall camp. Langsdorf said that part of prep has been in place “from the beginning.”
>> Wide receivers coach Keith Williams said Spielman has come a long way from his high school days, where he was more of a running back and all-around weapon than a receiver.
“He’s made a big jump for the simple fact that he’s a young guy and he’s never played true wideout up until this point, so he’s made a big jump from that standpoint, and he had to make the jump to play,” Williams said. “He had to make that jump and show that he’s developing into being a wideout, which he has done. He studies hard, he works hard, it means something to him so I expect him to continue to improve.”
>> Langsdorf said Nebraska is at a slight advantage this week in preparing for the Oregon defense than they would have been in years past, simply because they’ve faced another 3-4 defense all of fall camp.
Oregon runs a 3-4 as well as the Huskers, which Langsdorf acknowledged can still be a beast to tackle because of the different coverages that can be thrown at you and the ways in which the defense can attack, but he thinks having a month of time to prepare for it is going to set them up much better for success than just a week of time.
“I think it’s a little easier to go from practicing against a 3-4 to a 4-3 team, than going the other way,” Langsdorf said. “So I think that’s been a good benefit for us.”
>> Left tackle Nick Gates graded the highest among the offensive linemen against Arkansas State despite committing two penalties, though Cavanaugh said it was “neck and neck” with left guard Jerald Foster.
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.