After a monster game at Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, redshirt freshman J.D. Spielman officially passed junior Stanley Morgan Jr. in both receptions and receiving yards. Spielman has been getting all the buzz lately after really coming on as a slot receiver over the second half of the season.
However, Morgan is still Nebraska's best receiver and he reminded everyone of that against Penn State with a monster seven-catch, 185-yard, one-touchdown performance.
Morgan is up to 54 catches for 912 yards and eight touchdowns, and he's done it while missing a game. He is first in the Big Ten in yards per game, tied for first in receiving touchdowns and second in total receiving yards, and again, he's done it while playing one less game than a lot of his competitors.
Morgan ripped of gains of 51, 41, 34, 24, 18 and 12 plus an 8-yard touchdown. Let's take a look at his four biggest plays plus the score to see how he was able to come alive.
Third Quarter, Second Drive
Morgan caught two passes for 30 yards in the first half, but like the rest of the offense he really got going in the third quarter. To be fair, Penn State started working some of its backups into the game throughout the second half. However, on some of these plays, it wouldn't have matter whether it was a starter or backup; Morgan just made a great play.
On first and 10 near midfield, Nebraska drew up a beautiful route combination
Morgan lines up to the left with a tight end and two receivers to the right. Tyler Hoppes runs an intermediate post while J.D. Spielman runs a shallow cross out of the slot.
Disregard that arrow in the middle of the screen cap. Penn State runs a stunt with the left defensive tackle looping around the right side. Spielman crossing underneath and Hoppes angling across the middle pulls the linebackers and safeties forward as Morgan continues to run deep.
The rusher gets a free run to Tanner Lee, but Lee got the pass out just before he got hit (seriously, how many of his best throws this year have been with a ton of pressure in his face?).
The right safety went forward to help on Hoppes crossing, leaving the far side safety as the only help for the cornerback responsible for tracking Morgan. Morgan has him on his back and turns back to track the ball as it flies through the air.
The pass is an absolute dime and Morgan did a great job of tracking it and elevating to snag it out of the air. Morgan kept the corner on his back so he had no chance of breaking it up and the other safety wasn't able to make it in time to impact the play.
The corner pulled Morgan down after the catch and the play went for a gain of 34 yards. Two plays later, Nebraska executed a split zone play that sprung running back Mikale Wilbon for a 24-yard touchdown.
Third Quarter, Third Drive
On third and 4 (or 5?), Nebraska calls Morgan's number again. He's sprinting straight up the sideline on a 9-route.
Penn State dialed up a blitz, sending seven (!) rushers after Lee. The corner covering Morgan has his eyes in the backfield anticipating a quick throw.
However, Wilbon did a great job of picking up the rusher off the left side. Right tackle Brenden Jaimes got just enough of the opposite rusher to force him into a wide rush, buying Lee an extra half-second. The cornerback remained in his drop too long as Morgan is on a dead sprint now and the corner is about to try to get his hips turned.
Lee delivered another perfect pass, hitting Morgan in stride with a couple yards of separation and the safety nowhere close.
Morgan ran another 20 or so yards after the catch before Penn State managed to knock him out of bounds.
Needing 4, Nebraska got 51. This play is more a credit to the protection and Lee, but Morgan still did his job.
On the next play, De'Mornay Pierson-El pulled a double-move, broke through a hold and scored a 22-yard touchdown.
Fourth Quarter, Second Drive
Morgan takes a licking on this play but bounces right back up.
On first and 10, Morgan runs a post route. The left safety creeps forward, leaving one safety deep lined up on the opposite hash marks.
Nebraska runs play-action and Penn State has a free rusher coming off the edge. However, the rusher is indecisive, getting caught between taking out the back and going after the quarterback. Morgan cuts across his man's face and angles towards the middle of the field. Lee steps back and fires downfield.
Once again, it's a perfectly-placed pass from Lee and Morgan plucks it out of the air. The safety flies over late and…
Whack. Morgan held on despite taking a big shot.
The safety, starter Troy Apke, was called for targeting and tossed from the game. Tack on another 10 yards to the 21-yard gain and Nebraska goes to work from the 11-yard line.
A 3-yard run by Wilbon sets up a second and 7 from the 8-yard line. Nebraska calls everyone's favorite play in the red zone, the end zone fade.
The corner doesn't make any sort of contact off the line. Lee sees Morgan has the advantage and winds up to let the ball go almost immediately.
The corner realizes he's in deep trouble as Morgan blows by him and reaches out to grab him… and he doesn't let go.
With the corner holding one arm, Morgan reaches out with the other and somehow manages to catch the ball and secure it before going out of bounds. Touchdown.
The officials threw the flag, but Morgan didn't need the call. That was closer to a 5/95 ball than a 50/50 one.
Fourth Quarter, Third Drive
It's hard to top that one-handed catch, but Morgan tried to do it on this drive. The defense forced a three-and-out, but a heck of a punt by Penn State set the Huskers up inside their own 5-yard line.
A lot of teams run in this situation to give themselves more room to operate. Not Nebraska. Danny Langsdorf dials up a deep shot. Two receivers are stacked to the left of Lee. Morgan runs right up the hash marks while the other receiver runs a deep post.
The safety on that side of the field gets drawn in by the other receiver angling towards him, but Morgan has a step on his corner.
The other safety realizes his mistake but he's too late to recover and make an impact. The corner is right on Morgan's back but Morgan doesn't care.
Once again, Lee put the ball high in the air and gave Morgan a chance to go make a play on it. The corner does a great job of getting his hand in there and trying to knock the ball out. Does Morgan complete the process of the catch as he goes to the ground?
That would be a yes.
With a 41-yard gain, Morgan flipped the field in Nebraska's favor. The Huskers went on to score on the drive after starting at their own 3.
Tying it All Together
Before the season, I looked at what Morgan did as a sophomore and I asked him what it would take for him to take the next step this year. His response?
“Just 50-50 balls, catching everything, even the ones downfield, long downfield, catching everything,” Morgan said.
To be fair, Morgan has still been somewhat up-and-down this year, dropping more passes than Nebraska would have liked to see. But on the other hand, he also made plenty of plays like the ones I broke down above.
With one game left to play, Morgan is 31 yards shy of breaking Johnny Rodgers' record for most receiving yards in a season and he's 88 yards shy of cracking 1,000, a figure that is clearly more in the mind of receivers coach Keith Williams than Rodgers' 941.
"The record should be broken already," Williams said. "He's left 88 yards, at least, out there on the field."
Morgan has caught 54 passes on 97 targets (55.7 percent) this year, a significant improvement from last year (33 catches on 67 targets, 49.2 percent). He's still quite a bit behind last year's leader, Jordan Westerkamp (64.4 percent) but you cannot deny Morgan's production nor his improvement.
When Morgan is locked in and playing at the top of his game, he is capable of spme special plays and he reminded everyone of that at Penn State last Saturday.
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.