Early in the third quarter, Tanner Lee dropped back and fired a pass… directly into the hands of Rutgers safety Kiy Hester.
Hester returned the interception 33 yards for the touchdown. It was Lee’s second interception of the game and his nation-leading ninth of the season. Three of them have been returned for touchdowns.
Before Hester even crossed the goal line the tweets calling for redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien to replace Lee behind center came flooding in, including from some pretty prominent alumni.
However, the offense went right back on the field following a touchback and sure enough, Lee led them back onto the field. He was greeted by a smattering of boos among the cheers from the Husker faithful. Whether those boos were directed at Lee himself or at Coach Mike Riley for sending the struggling signal-caller back out there, all Lee heard was the noise.
“That was tough,” Lee said. “I made a dumb play there, that’s for sure.”
Did Riley even consider pulling Lee?
“Just by the fact that this is a three-point game, he’s played so much more, and we had a lot of faith that he would bring it back and he did,” Riley said. “He made some real good throws after that. It had nothing to do with how we feel about Patrick either. This guy has been in the games and he sucked it up and made some throws.”
Nebraska went three-and-out (two runs then a pass) on the drive immediately following the pick-six, but the Blackshirts responded by forcing a three-and-out by Rutgers. The ensuing punt took a fortunate bounce and the Scarlet Knights downed it at the 3-yard line.
What followed was a 17-play, 97-yard drive that was powered by the run game but capped off by Lee with a strike to De’Mornay Pierson-El for a touchdown.
“It just shows that that guy, he really does play by next snap, where the snap before doesn’t matter, it’s about the next snap,” junior left guard and team captain Jerald Foster said about Lee bouncing back from the pick-six. “I am happy, having a quarterback in Tanner, having somebody that understands the game, as serious as he is to keep us going. Putting it on his back is easy. It definitely is. As an offensive line I feel like we definitely get our encouragement, we get our push and the grind from that guy. He definitely helps us go forward.”
Nebraska tacked on two more field goals in the fourth quarter to close the game on a 13-0 run. After the interception, Lee went 7-for-12 for 58 yards and a touchdown while the Huskers ran the ball 27 times for 127 yards (excluding the victory formation kneel-downs).
In total, Nebraska ran the ball 47 times for 197 yards, good for 4.2 per tote. Lee finished 13-of-26 for 109 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Well, I will tell you this, that [nearly 200 yards rushing] would be nice, but we are going to have to throw for more yards,” Riley said.
Riley wasn’t trying to diminish the ground game, but he was correct in his assessment: Nebraska isn’t going to play Rutgers every week and 109 passing yards will not get it done most weeks.
By anointing Lee the quarterback from the start (spring ball competition aside) and sticking with him so completely through his immense early struggles, Riley has effectively tied himself at the hip with his hand-picked quarterback.
“I think Tanner’s doing a lot of good things for us,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We’ve got a couple kids behind him that are practicing and preparing, but Tanner’s the guy and we’re staying with him. It’s not all him, but I thought the fact that he responded like he did after the pick-six was really a credit to him and his character and his toughness.”
Langsdorf said there has been a clear difference between Lee and O’Brien in practice, and that backs up what we were able to see during spring and fall practices. O’Brien is in his second year on a college campus and has yet to play a snap outside of the spring game. Lee has started 22 games and this is his fifth year of college. Lee may not be playing well, but that experience clearly means something to the coaches.
Starting O’Brien is essentially punting on the season in order to look to the future. Based on everything the coaches are saying, O’Brien simply isn’t ready (and don’t point to his mobility as a reason to play him; he’s not Tommy Armstrong Jr. and he’d likely struggle just as much if not more behind a porous offensive line).
If Nebraska is going to turn things around this season, it will be on the right arm of Tanner Lee. He needs to start playing more like the guy fans heard about from talent evaluators and select media members, or even more like the guy Nebraska got in the season-opener, where he was mostly solid with a few “wow” throws and a few drops that hurt his final stat line.
Lee is currently completing 52.1 percent of his passes for 224.5 yards per game with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. That’s simply not going to cut it.
If he throws another pick-six in the first half of the game against Wisconsin in two weeks? Then it’s probably time to call the experiment a failure and give the young kid a chance to play. But Lee has at least one more tune-up game against Illinois to prove that he can be something other than a turnover machine. His own decision-making is his biggest enemy right now, even beyond the offensive line.
It is not entirely on Lee, however. Nebraska can certainly help him out by doing what it did after the pick-six — run the ball. Nebraska likely isn’t going to be able to put up 200 yards on the ground against all of the teams remaining on its schedule, but each of the veteran running backs — Tre Bryant, Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo — has proven that he’s capable of carrying the load and putting up big rushing totals and Nebraska needs to use them. Perhaps more success on the ground will lead to better early-down success rate and less predictable passing situations for Lee (if the offensive line can hold up its end of the bargain, that is).
It’s clear by the comments of the players and coaches that Lee has earned their trust completely. He was voted a captain before ever playing a snap at Nebraska for a reason.
— Drew Brown (@Drewdbrown34) September 24, 2017
Regardless of what else happens, Saturday proved that Riley and Langsdorf are going to sink or swim with Tanner Lee at quarterback. By the end of October, we should know how that gamble turned out.
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.