What a game. Not even going into the fact that Saturday night’s 43-36 Nebraska victory was my first time back in Memorial Stadium for a gameday since 2001 (it didn’t disappoint), Saturday’s high-scoring affair was nothing short of memorable.
Quarterback Tanner Lee made his long-anticipated debut and was solid. I’ll reserve “great” or anything higher for when he has to actually carry the offense. He didn’t have to Saturday because sophomore running back Tre Bryant was doing it for him. Bryant piled up a career-high 192 yards on 31 carries. Lee just needed to do enough to keep the offense balanced and on schedule without turning it over.
The defense also made its grand entrance in, let’s say, interesting fashion.
Most of what I’ve seen from the internet and heard just in leaving the stadium Saturday night, is that the bulk of Nebraska nation is unimpressed with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. The Huskers were perfectly content letting Arkansas State dink and dunk it all night en route to 415 yards through the air. Most fans probably won’t want to hear the words “bubble screen” for at least a few weeks.
Diaco did his part to silence those concerns (or at least try) Monday night when he met with the media.
"We don't really talk about statistics, we really don't care," he said. "We try to build the plan to keep the points down so at the end of the game, we have one more point than our opponent.
"We built a gameplan, articulated it to the players and they did a wonderful job putting it together."
Basically, you don’t need to fret about the defense. Hail Varsity’s managing editor Brandon Vogel said that much Saturday night. Head coach Mike Riley said almost the exact same thing Monday morning. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll go in a slightly different direction.
There’s a lot to take away from the Huskers’ first game, but if you’re looking for a team Nebraska is going to strive to be in 2017, look at who it was in the third quarter.
For all the talk of the space Arkansas State receivers were afforded in the first half, Diaco made the necessary adjustments in the second half.
“I thought that the communication with the defensive staff was good,” Riley said Monday. “I think the stuff they talked about at halftime with our team was really well done and organized.”
There just wasn’t as much space in that third quarter. In that one frame, Arkansas State had just 43 yards of total offense. Quarterback Justice Hansen had 31 yards passing on four completions, and his go-to option was almost entirely taken away.
Can't read my own notes. It's actually 13 & 2.
12-13 for 87 yds 1H
2-2 for 6 yds 2H
On 1 drive, ASU ran a screen on 5-9 plays. https://t.co/X9MEecOfR0
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) September 4, 2017
"The coaches did a great job at halftime of creating some new thoughts, tweaking some alignments," Diaco said. "The players took the field in the second half equipped to get off the field."
In the first half, Hansen completed 28 passes at 8.75 yards per completion. That number dropped to 7.75 in the third quarter. A small drop, sure, but a drop nonetheless. And the Red Wolves didn’t change anything on offense, either. After 36 pass attempts and 12 rushes in the first half, the Red Wolves called seven pass plays in the frame – one of them ended in the Huskers’ only sack of the game – and only three rushes. That 70 percent mark was about where they were in the first half (75 percent), over a smaller sample size.
That’s the other side of it. Perhaps part of the reason Nebraska’s defense looked better in the third quarter was because it wasn’t on the field as long. Arkansas State held the ball for 7:48 in the first quarter, 8:26 in the second quarter and 8:35 in the fourth quarter. In the third, it possessed the ball for 3:29.
Nebraska played the clock in the third quarter, and played to its strengths. With Tanner Lee in town, maybe the expectation was the offense would speed up a little and the Huskers would come out rifling the ball all over the field, sprinkling in the running game to keep defenses honest. At least, I thought that might be an option. I mean, look at this throw!
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) September 3, 2017
But that’s not Mike Riley’s offense.
Dating back to 2003, Riley has had offenses rank outside the top 25 in time of possession just four times – three of which came during losing seasons, according to TeamRankings.com. On four occasions, Riley-led Oregon State teams finished inside the top 10. Point being, Riley’s scheme likes to control the clock, and when it does, it's successful. Like in the third quarter.
Nebraska possessed the ball for 11:31 of the 15-minute frame. It ran 24 plays – compared to the 10 Arkansas State got off – and it outgained the Red Wolves 149 to 43. The bulk of that yardage was on the ground – Bryant had 97 yards in the quarter – and Lee completed six passes at a 60 percent clip. When Lee missed and drives stalled (not great), the Huskers were still able to flip the field. Arkansas State averaged starting field position around the 27-yard-line in quarters one, two and four. In the third, they began around the 13.
“They’re going to get some yards,” Riley said of the Red Wolves’ offense. “We gotta make a play and keep them out of the end zone.”
In the third quarter, Nebraska did.
“We have to play the field position with teams like this,” Riley said.
In the third quarter, Nebraska did.
“Make sure we do a good job offensively. On opportunities to score, score.”
In the third quarter, Nebraska did, for the most part.
All of those things are good. All of those things result in wins if you stretch them over four full quarters of play. Obviously, Nebraska didn’t do that against Arkansas State and things were close. But give the Red Wolves credit, they won eight of their last nine games last season for a reason, and they returned a defense that can legitimately hold its own against Power Five teams. The Red Wolves aren’t Southern Utah, and maybe it will help in the long run that Nebraska had a challenge in week one rather than a cake walk.
But, if you want to be a “glass half full” kind of person for the day, look at the third quarter and get excited. That’s a team with the potential to win a lot of games.