Not even starting left tackle Nick Gates knew who was going to be the first guy out of the Huskers' backfield when Nebraska opened its season against Arkansas State on Saturday night, not until the video board inside Memorial Stadium flashed sophomore Tre Bryant’s name across the screen shortly before kickoff.
Bryant was listed as a co-starter when the team was announced, along with junior Mikale Wilbon, but once the hitting started and Nebraska put the finishing touches on a 43-36 win over the Red Wolves, Bryant had a monster performance next to his name in the box score.
The man wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. calls an animal carried the ball 31 times Saturday night for 192 yards and a touchdown. The Huskers haven’t had a back break that 30-carry threshold in a season-opener since Marlon Lucky did it against Nevada in 2007. It's also the most rushing yards in a season opener since Lucky's '07 game. And it's just the second time under head coach Mike Riley a running back topped 150 yards on the ground.
“The way Tre prepares for each game, you can see it coming,” fullback Luke McNitt said. “The kid’s a great worker, he shows up every day, he knows what he’s doing in this offense – that’s a huge thing – and I was very proud of him.”
Riley said the decision to turn Bryant loose was made earlier in the week.
“Late in the week we decided to let him go,” Riley said. “The substitution would be done when he got tired.”
But not even Bryant expected such a heavy workload. He said reps were split up in practice and he didn’t know he was even going to be the guy until the first personnel call once the game began. Regardless, once Bryant stepped between the lines, he went to work, aided by a rhythm he was able to find in his new featured role.
“It felt good to kind of get in that rhythm,” Bryant said. “To hit the hole of a certain play over and over and see them try to creep into the hole so now you bounce it out to the outside, just setting things up and moving better, and that just comes with the rhythm.”
He ripped off five runs beyond 10 yards. He peeled off a 24-yard carry that, while not his most impressive on the stat sheet, was made possible thanks to four broken tackles and Bryant powering his way through the Arkansas State defense.
His long of the night, a 35-yard carry early in the third quarter, saw him past the first line of defense before even feeling a Red Wolves defender. When Bryant cut, he was decisive. There was no dancing around in the backfield and he didn’t try to bounce it outside if he didn’t need to. When he found a hole, he hit it, hard.
“Give him a sliver of daylight and you don’t know what could happen, you know, he might break one loose,” center Cole Conrad said. “We just take that to heart and try to open up some holes for him and let him run the ball.”
Bryant’s running had another effect too, one the coaching staff was hoping for throughout fall camp: a perfectly balanced offensive attack. The Huskers finished with 225 yards on the ground and 238 yards in the air.
“That’s kind of our identity,” Conrad said. “We want to establish the running game, pound the ball like back in the day, like the pipeline. We want to shove it down their throat, try to, and try to open up the passing game.”
Mike Riley said this performance could be a “snapshot” of who the team wants to be moving forward. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said there are still a few things to clean up, like backs and tight ends hitting their assignments in pass protection situations, and he was visibly upset with the safety the Huskers gave up in the second quarter.
But, as it stands, the Huskers got the win and seemingly confirmed that Bryant is the man in the Nebraska backfield. When the Huskers hit the road to face the Oregon Ducks in Eugene on Sep. 9, Bryant intends to be the leading man again.
“He’s a great back and I’m glad he’s on our team,” linebacker Luke Gifford said of Bryant. “I like not going against him anymore, it’s fun to watch him do it against someone else.”
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.