In 2014, then-freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El returned a punt 80 yards for a score against Iowa in the Huskers’ regular season finale, capping an All-American season as a returner with his third touchdown of the year.
At the time, it looked like Pierson-El was destined for stardom and it seemed like there were going to be plenty more special teams touchdowns in his future. However, that score against Iowa proved to be his last as a combination of injuries, poor scheme and bad execution sapped the potency of Nebraska’s punt return unit in the following years.
In fact, Nebraska fans had to wait 46 games before a Nebraska punt returner found the end zone once again.
JD Spielman’s 77-yard punt return for a touchdown is this week’s Play of the Game.
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) October 27, 2018
Nebraska wasted no time finding the end zone on its first possession as the Huskers drove 65 yards in seven plays and 2:31 to take a 7-0 lead early. After forcing a three-and-out, Spielman dropped back to receive a punt from Bethune-Cookman’s Javaunie Francis.
Spielman caught the ball at his own 23-yard line with no one around him. The blocker on the left side (perhaps Braxton Clark; it’s hard to tell) did a great job of recovering and getting back in front to prevent the gunner from angling in towards Spielman, leaving just one Wildcat sprinting up the middle of the field. Seeing that man running free, Spielman took one step to the right as if he were going to bounce it outside. However, instead he planted that foot then cut back the other way and the would-be tackler ran right by him.
After advancing about 5 yards Spielman cut it back to the right and another blocker got around in front just enough to where he could get in the way and make the key block without drawing a block-in-the-back penalty. Spielman angled toward the sideline as he made his way up the field.
Junior corner Eric Lee Jr. threw another block at the 30-yard line which allowed Spielman to cut back across the middle, putting on the jets to run right by Bethune-Cookman’s rather large punter. Two other Huskers came flying in and absolutely blasted one of the last Wildcats left, taking out a second Wildcat in the process.
From there it was a foot race between Spielman and Francis, listed at 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds. It wasn’t much of a contest. Spielman walked into the end zone and delivered maybe the earliest dagger off the college football season, putting the Huskers up 14-0 just over four minutes in.
"I think everyone made the blocks that they needed to,” senior tight end Jack Stoll said. “We've been learning technique as far as not getting penalties. I think everyone has been working hard. We've been doing a good job of doing all the drills that coach [Jovan] Dewitt has us doing every week.”
Nebraska scored two more times that period and led the wildcats 28-3 after the first quarter, then 38-3 at halftime before letting the reserves handle most of the second half.
A punt return cost the Huskers a loss against Troy, and Coach Scott Frost said it was good to finally get one themselves.
“We blocked everybody on that play,” Coach Scott Frost said. “Our special teams did get better, I think they have been improving. Confused special teams plays probably cost us a couple games this year and it was good to see us finally get one on special teams. You score on defense or special teams, you’re going to win most games. We haven’t had one yet, so it was good to see us break the ice.”
All season long, Nebraska has struggled to open up return lanes on special teams, and any time Spielman or whoever else had been back there did find a bit of daylight, there was usually a flag thrown for a hold or an illegal block. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, however. The Huskers only committed five penalties and none of them were on coverage or return teams.
"I think Coach Dewitt has always done a phenomenal job of teaching us what to do,” Stoll said. “Its just the little details of not having a hold here and a block-in-the-back there. Him having us do drills to just get us out of situations like that. He’s done an awesome job of putting us in positions to become successful. We are really excited to see how the rest of the season will go on special teams.”
Spielman’s touchdown was the longest punt return by a Huskers since Pierson-El’s 80-yarder and it was Spielman’s second special teams touchdown of his career. His first touch as a Husker was a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Arkansas State in the opener last season. He’s the first player since Ameer Abdullah in 2012 to score a touchdown on both return units.
Nebraska went more than three-and-a-half years without a punt return touchdown, and special teams have been a significant problem all season long. Nebraska turned the tables on Saturday, however.
That’s why JD Spielman’s 77-yard punt 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.