After struggling early in the season while re-acclimating to college football, Tanner Lee it his stride midseason. Against Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue, Lee threw for 324.3 yards per game with a 66.7 percent completion rate, tossing 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Against the Boilermakers, Lee orchestrated a perfect game-winning drive combining smart decision-making with special throws.
With the offensive line and defense in their current states, Nebraska needs Lee to be a star every game in order to have a chance to win. He wasn't one against Northwestern on Saturday.
Lee completed 21 of his 38 (55.3 percent) passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions against the Wildcats. Unlike some of his previous turnovers, these interceptions were not flukes, and most of the failed third-down conversions were not dropped passes.
I pulled out five plays (including all three interceptions) to break down Lee's struggles on Saturday.
Northwestern scored on its first drive of the game, putting the pressure on Nebraska to put together a quality drive in response. The Huskers picked up one first down, but faced a third-and-8 from their own 35-yard line.
Nebraska lines up with trips to the field side. Northwestern shows blitz with six players at the line of scrimmage. All six do end up rushing, which is more than the five blockers Nebraska will end up with. Northwestern runs a stunt, with the linebacker standing over the B gap looping around the defensive tackles. Right tackle Brendan Jaimes follows the stunt and double-teams the tackle. That leaves tight end Tyler Hoppes to block two men.
Further complicating matters, rather than staying in to pick up the blitz, running back Devine Ozigbo releases around the left side. Hoppes blocks the outside rusher, while Jaimes has doubled the tackle, leaving No. 54 (Trent Goens) untouched through the C-gap.
Lee does get the pass out, but it's well after his receiver made his break. Hard to tell if the pressure from Goens impacted the throw at all, but I'm sure it didn't help and it didn't feel good afterward.
With the ball still in the air, safety Kyle Quiero has already cut in front of the receiver. Best case scenario here is Quiero has a case of the butterfingers.
Sadly, he does not. Quiero picks off the throw and his momentum carries him out of bounds.
Lee threw late to the far side of the field to a receiver running an out-route. No bueno.
For whatever reason, his timing was just off throughout this game. Late throws will be a theme of this breakdown.
This one is juts plain bad, and to be honest, I have no idea what Lee thought he saw.
With less than a minute to play in the second quarter, Nebraska began its drive with an 11-yard connection between Lee and Stanley Morgan Jr. moving the Huskers up to their own 45. With 46 seconds left, Northwestern drops back into its prevent defense, rushing three. Nebraska lines up with trips to the field side, but Northwestern has five defenders on that side of the field.
De'Mornay Pierson-El runs another one of those out-routes to the sticks. Notice the guy circled here. That's Quiero again. Notice the time and situation: first down with plenty of time on the clock and three timeouts.
Ozigbo runs free into the flat, but Lee is looking the other direction… where all those Wildcats are.
Lee fires to Pierson-El making his break, but Quiero is just chilling there underneath.
Easy interception, and this one doesn't even lead him out of bounds because he never had to break on the ball. All he did was jump straight up and grab it.
Quiero caught the ball at the Northwestern 45 and ran it back to the Nebraska 40 before Pierson-El managed to chase him down. Pretty solid tackle for a wide receiver, though, and great hustle by Pierson-El.
I have no clue what Lee thought he saw there or how he could have missed Quiero, but apparently he did. Once again, no bueno.
After settling for a field goal at the end of an 18-play drive that put Nebraska up 24-17, the defense forced a three-and-out. The Huskers ran a jet-sweep hand-off to JD Spielman for 5 yards on first down, but Ozigbo was stuffed for a loss of 2 on second. On the ensuing third down play, Nebraska missed a huge opportunity.
On third and 7, Spielman lines up in the slot and runs a nine route.
It's a play-action pass as Lee fakes the hand-off to Ozigbo. Meanwhile, Spielman runs right by Quiero.
Lee sees Spielman running free deep and launches, but he doesn't get much air under the ball. Quiero was beat on the play, but the location of the ball still gives him a chance.
Quiero gets a hand on the pass and it falls harmlessly into the turf. Look how far ahead Spielman is.
If Lee had gotten more air under that pass, it's a touchdown and Nebraska takes a 14-point lead. Instead, the Huskers have to punt the ball away. Still, no bueno.
This last interception wasn't all on Lee, but he still could have done better on the play.
The Huskers entered the red zone for just the second time thanks to a 23-yard gain from Lee to Spielman with a 15-yard penalty tacked on. Already leading by a touchdown, Nebraska has a chance to extend its lead to two scores.
The Huskers set up with trips right and one back next to Lee. Northwestern sends a blitzer up the middle and stunts the defensive end around the tackles.
Jaimes blocks the left end, right guard Matt Farniok blocks the left tackle, center Cole Conrad picks up the blitzer and Jerald Foster helps him out and Gates takes on the right tackle with some help from Hoppes. Ozigbo releases. That means there is no one left to block the end coming around on the stunt.
Lee sees a man in the end zone and winds up to launch the ball, but the rusher drills him before he can get it out.
A defender, Godwin Igwebuike, just happens to be standing right where the ball ends up and he picks it off. At least it wasn't Quiero again, I guess.
Again, Lee can't do much about getting hit as he's throwing. However, the window for the throw opened up prior to when he actually decided to throw the ball. There's a chance he still could have fit the ball in there, but a safety was rotating over the top and might have had a chance to make a play on the ball. If Lee throws on time, it's a touchdown and the rusher never reaches him. Even an incomplete pass sets up an easy field goal for Drew Brown, but instead Nebraska comes up empty.
Failed Third Down Conversion
Northwestern tied the game up, but Nebraska got the ball back with about five minutes to play. An illegal block on the kick return started the Nebraska drive at its own 7-yard line, but the Huskers managed to put a drive together, converting a pair of third downs and driving their way to the Northwestern 45-yard line.
Langsdorf dialed up a play-action shot deep down the left sideline for Morgan, but he was well defended and the pass took him out of bounds. On second down, Lee hit tight end Jack Stoll for a 5-yard gain, setting up third and 5 from the 40-yard line.
Nebraska lines up with trips in a bunch to the left with a tight end and two receivers. Hoppes runs up and across the middle, while Pierson-El and Spielman run corner routes with Spielman running to the sticks and Pierson-El getting deeper.
As we've already discussed, out-routes require precise timing and Lee didn't have it in this game. Spielman makes his break but Lee doesn't make the throw. With a three-man rush, Lee has plenty of time and space.
A second later, Lee finally decides to target Spielman underneath, but once again the defender (that pesky Quiero fellow once again) reads the play and undercuts the throw.
The pass probably should have been another interception but ends up as a pass break-up as Quiero can't quite snag it. Meanwhile, look at Pierson-El and where the nearest defender is to him (not nearly as close as Quiero was to Spielman).
It's hard to know for sure what the window would have been like for Lee if he had targeted Pierson-El, but it probably would have had a better chance of success than the throw Lee did end up making. If Spielman was going to be open, it would have had to be right after his break before Quiero can close on him.
Tying it All Together
With the current state of the offensive line and the defense, Nebraska needed Tanner Lee to build off of his recent play and put the team on his back. Unfortunately, the burden was too heavy in this game and the Huskers lost in overtime despite so many chances to win the game in regulation.
A lot of Lee's struggles to move the ball this season have had to do with heavy pressure or dropped passes by his receivers. On Saturday, however, it was mostly on him. For whatever reason, his timing was just off in this game and his decision-making was suspect in part because of that fact. Lee missed some big throws in big moments and made some head-scratching decisions in others.
Nebraska could certainly stand to give Lee more help, but in order for the team to take a step forward he has to find some consistency.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.