The Play of the Game is back for season two, folks, and with a resounding 61 percent of the Twitter vote, J.D. Spielman’s 99-yard kickoff return for touchdown is the play of week one.
The return is the first by a Husker since Kenny Bell ran one back — also from the 1-yard line — in 2013.
How do you answer an insane punt return TD from Arkansas State?
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 3, 2017
With about five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Arkansas State’s Blaise Taylor dropped a punt, picked it up and ran it back 63 yards for a score, putting the Red Wolves up 7-3 early. Spielman, a redshirt freshman receiver playing in his first game as a Husker, did not like what he saw on the Arkansas State sideline after the play.
“After I saw their punt returner take it to the end zone, I remember looking over to their sideline and seeing them all jumping around,” Spielman said. “I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to shut that down,’ and I got the opportunity to shut that down.”
Spielman ran back to the end zone to wait for the ensuing kickoff. He caught the kick at the 1-yard line, about halfway between the numbers and the sideline, and immediately started angling back towards the middle of the field.
“First thing I saw was the ball getting kicked and I knew that the kick was going to be inbounds because I watched film a lot and saw that the kicker kicked out of bounds a lot,” Spielman said. “I knew that if it was inbounds I’d have an opportunity to field it, and I took my eye off the ball for a couple of seconds just to see where the kickoff team was at, and I noticed they had a lot of space. So I focused on catching and securing the ball, and then there was a lot of good blocking across the whole board by the whole kickoff return team. There was a hole on the other side that I could take.”
Fullback Luke McNitt set the first block, then linebacker Collin Miller delivered a punishing block to the inside. What looks to be a tight end (the number isn’t clear on the video) sets a key block near the numbers, then cornerback Avery Anderson gets just enough of his man to give Spielman a tunnel to run through. Wide receiver Conor Young throws the last block to the outside, then Spielman runs past Arkansas State nickelback Justin Clifton’s lunging tackle attempt near the 25-yard line.
From that point on, there was nothing but turf in front of him, and he knew it.
“Probably after the last guy that tried to get me, I saw his arm come in,” Spielman said. “After that I looked out of my peripheral to the right and saw that there was no one there, so that’s when I said in my mind that ‘that’s going to be a touchdown.’”
Spielman wasn’t the only one who quickly realized that the speedy slot receiver was gone.
“I started running on the sideline with him,” freshman wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey said. “I was calling touchdown right away when he made that one move against that dude that was on the left side. I knew from the get-go that it was a touchdown.”
Just like that, with his first touch as a Husker, Spielman took back the lead.
“It changed the momentum back towards Nebraska,” Spielman said.
That was Spielman’s only chance to return one, as the Red Wolves avoided him at all costs the rest of the game, kicking one out of bounds, kicking another one short that was fair-caught at the 30-yard line, and kicking another one to Stanley Morgan Jr. on the other side of the field.
Spielman also made an impact on offense with two catches for 44 yards — a 9-yard reception on third down that moved the chains and a 35-yard fade towards the sideline on a beautiful throw by quarterback Tanner Lee.
“JD Spielman, you know, you saw him on the kickoff return and just a smidgen of what he can do in the passing game,” Coach Mike Riley said. “So, I think we’ll do more and more with him.”
Arkansas State came ready to play and punched Nebraska in the mouth in the first quarter. However, the redshirt freshman immediately answered for the Huskers and retook the lead, and that’s why J.D. Spielman’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown 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.