The Play of the Game is back for another season and with so many stand-out plays (by the defense and special teams, at least) this week, we opened up the voting to the fans.
Nominees were Eric Lee Jr.’s pick-six, JD Spielman’s punt return touchdown, Cam Taylor-Britt’s sack and forced fumble that led to Alex Davis’ touchdown and, finally, Taylor-Britt’s fourth-quarter interception in the red zone.
With 41% of more than 900 votes, this week’s play of the game is Lee’s pick-six.
With Nebraska clinging to a 14-7 lead, South Alabama got the ball to start the second half. The Jaguars picked up 15 yards on their first play, got whistled for a false start on the next play and then gained 7 more yards.
On second and 8, South Alabama quarterback Cephus Johnson took a shot down the right sideline and Lee, in at safety for an injured Deontai Williams, rotated over and broke the pass up, setting up third-and-8.
Johnson dropped back to pass again, targeted a receiver up the left side line and let it fly. Lee was reading him the whole way, however, and broke on the ball for his first career interception.
Senior CB turned safety Eric Lee Jr. with a terrific read and a great break on the ball for his first career interception which he ran all the way back. pic.twitter.com/E0MPAkICKt
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) August 31, 2019
Lee caught the ball on the run with plenty of open turf in front of him and sprinted up the sideline. Johnson ran over, looking to make a play, but Lee angled his return back inside using a pair of teammates to get in Johnson’s way and he walked into the end zone untouched.
Thirty-eight yards, six points. In his fifth year at Nebraska, the senior cornerback turned safety lived up to his Twitter handle: @Pick6_Lee.
“It’s already written,” junior outside linebacker JoJo Domann said. “E-Lee, Pick-Six Lee, it was meant to be. He’s jumping routes out there, he’s doing his thing, it was awesome to see, awesome to see.”
The return doubled Nebraska’s lead from seven to 14. On the next drive, the Huskers forced a punt and Spielman returned it 76 yards for a touchdown, pushing the lead to 28-7.
Lee wasn’t done making plays, however. Late in the fourth quarter with Nebraska leading 35-21, Johnson’s helmet popped off after a 9-yard run on first down. Per NCAA rules, Johnson had to leave the field for one play and South Alabama sent in back-up quarterback Tylan Morton who proceeded to throw the ball right to Lee for his second interception of the day.
Lee finished with four tackles (three solo), two interceptions and one pass break-up after starting the game on the bench.
“That’s the mentality you’ve got to have, next man up,” senior cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “He did what he was supposed to do. Ain’t no surprises here because E-Lee’s been doing that all camp, all summer.”
As a unit, the seven defensive backs who played on defense produced 24 tackles, three interceptions, three pass break-ups, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one quarterback hurry with Lee, Taylor-Britt and Jackson leading the way. Even walk-on Eli Sullivan got into the action with four tackles.
“DBs back there, they make a lot of plays,” outside linebacker Alex Davis said. “You can tell they’re confident in that room. It looked natural for E-Lee, making those plays. He didn’t get too shocked about it. he made the play and came over to the sideline ready to go again. That’s about that whole room; that whole room is competitive and I could just really say that about the whole defense. Everybody’s competitive and ready to go.”
Lee committed to Bo Pelini’s staff, stuck with his commitment after Mike Riley took over, then went through another coaching change last season as Scott Frost stepped in. He switched from cornerback to safety this offseason and embraced his new role, earning a spot on the two-deep at the end of fall camp.
"If you look to our secondary, we've got a lot of guys that persevered through the coaching change and what we were expecting of them, and now they're some of our best teammates and today some of our best players,” Frost said. “Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee, Marquel Dismuke, there's others. Those guys were here when we got here and it takes a while to learn what we expect and want guys to do things and what the standards are. Those guys aren't just living up to the standards now, they're setting other people to standards and setting a new standard. I'm glad to see those guys having the success they're having and they deserve it.”
Lee has seen his role change and his playing time fluctuate throughout his Nebraska career but on Saturday, he got a chance to show he can make a difference for this team.
“Since I committed here back in 2014, being able to finally reach this day and make the plays I’m capable of out on the field to showcase it on this level, I’ve been waiting for that my whole life,” Lee said.
Whether Williams returns to the lineup next week or not, Lee proved against South Alabama that he was ready when called upon. That’s why Eric Lee Jr.’s pick-six is this week’s Play of the Game.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.