Tanner Lee, Nebraska’s much-maligned shot caller this season, has been different the last two weeks.
“I think he’s been really good,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. But that might be an understatement.
Against Illinois two weeks ago, Lee was 17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns. Seven of those passes were of the explosive variety – more than 15 yards gained. Receivers dropped three balls and he threw it away twice. At the time, it easily looked like Lee’s most complete game in a Husker uniform.
Against Wisconsin, he had the one mistake – a ball that bounced off his intended receiver’s helmet, was intercepted by a Badger defender (the second time that’s happened to Lee this year) and returned for a score – and you can put that on Lee if you want (I don’t). He certainly did after the game. But against one of the nation’s best defenses, Lee spearheaded an offensive attack that ripped the Badgers for the fourth-most yards they had surrendered since 2015.
Lee was 16-for-32 with 262 yards, a touchdown and the one pick. Langsdorf said they counted four throw-aways and four drops when they went back and watched the film. Lee graded out as high as any on the team.
“He had some really smart decisions,” Langsdorf said. “I thought he threw the ball accurately, he moved nicely in the pocket, had a scramble, stepped up a few times against some rush and made some throws. I just think he’s been really sharp, really solid.”
With everything the Huskers have asked of Lee in recent weeks, he’s delivered. Make a patchwork offensive line missing its top two right tackles and starting center work? No problem, Lee’s been sacked twice in the last three weeks after seven in the first three. Remain effective despite an inconsistent rushing attack missing its top two ball carriers and netting 2 yards or fewer on almost 45 percent of its runs? Sure, two of his three highest quarterback ratings have come in the last two weeks.
The tangible statsheet improvements have come lately by way of the more intangible changes.
The Huskers have been able to dial up more deep shots – almost as many 20-yard completions in the last two weeks (nine) as in the first four weeks (13) – in part because of Lee’s increasing comfort within the offense.
“I think he’s also doing a nice job of seeing things,” Langsdorf said. “He did a beautiful throw to [wide receiver] Stanley [Morgan Jr.] on the touchdown play and he did a nice job of checking the ball down to [tailback] Devine [Ozigbo] on another one. He’s seeing the deep ones and he’s checking it down. I think there’s a lot more confidence in his game.”
As for the declining sack numbers, the Huskers didn’t give up a single one against Wisconsin and that’s a positive for the offensive line, but Lee has done his part as well. Take this second quarter third-and-4 play with the Huskers deep in Badger territory looking to cut into a 10-point Wisconsin lead.
Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs comes unblocked off the right side of the line but Lee is able to make Jacobs miss thanks to a nifty move up into the pocket. He then confidently and decisively rifles a pass to wideout JD Spielman for the first. It’s a play Lee wasn’t making three weeks ago. It’s a play where you’d see Lee panic at the oncoming rusher and force a pass while getting hit. It’s a play that all-too-often ended in disaster for the Huskers early on this season.
“I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and that’s why he’s playing faster and making better decisions,” Langsdorf said. “I think it’s just a comfort level in continuing to work on a wide-rushing defensive end, stepping up and having his focus downfield.”
Lee said he’s just trying to learn things game to game and apply them to the next one, build off each outing. It’s working. Lee has curbed the turnovers and he’s, for the most part, gotten back to the Tanner Lee that the media saw during the spring and fall camp.
The final thing that needs to improve is the completion percentage.
“I think it’s low,” Langsdorf said. But boosting it falls on everyone, not just Lee. “We want [the completion percentage] much higher, obviously, and some of that’s going to be a guy getting open, some of that’s going to be ball placement, some of that’s going to be finishing the play and making the catch.”
The drops have been deflating. Wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El – a senior – dropped a near-50-yard bomb from Lee in the end zone against the Badgers.
“Most of the drops have been 50-50 balls, balls where there’s been some distractions, so I’m going to do some drills that involve every one of those scenarios,” wideout coach Keith Williams said about how to fix the issue. “It’s up to the kids to just have the technique we preach in terms of taking a picture of the ball, having a photo. We’ll get that fixed.”
If and when it does, Lee’s numbers will look even better. His play on the field already looks it. Getting booed while he trotted onto Tom Osborne Field against Rutgers three weeks ago seems like a distant memory at this point.
The offense, as a whole, needs to be better this week if the Huskers stand a chance at making amends for a 62-3 tail whipping at the hands of Ohio State last year. This current version of Tanner Lee gives some hope they can.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.