Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Safeties and Special Teams Drama: A Strange Night for Nebraska

September 3, 2017
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Saturday night was strange.

Throughout the Huskers’ (1-0) 43-36 season-opening win over the Arkansas State Red Wolves (0-1), there was more situational work than some teams will see in an entire season. The turnovers were low, but both teams put the ball in the dirt. There were two safeties, two onside kicks, two special teams touchdowns and 17 total penalties.

“That was one of the weirdest games I’ve ever been a part of,” fullback Luke McNitt said after the game. “All the different situations you can see on special teams, we saw tonight. We had everything.”

And yet, despite this being the first game of the season, Nebraska found a way to eke out a seven-point win. Maybe it was because they spent an entire Saturday during fall camp working on those exact plays, maybe it’s because Arkansas State just couldn’t capitalize on the game’s final drive.

Take away a second quarter Arkansas State safety, a play, and protection mistake, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf was noticeably agitated about after the win, and the Red Wolves don’t even need to attempt a final onside kick. Take away a first quarter punt in which sophomore Caleb Lightbourn blasted the ball 50 yards down field, only to have Arkansas State’s Blaise Taylor grab it on a bounce and return it 63 yards to the house, and you’re potentially looking at a three-score game in the final minutes.

Of course, it works the other way as well. If not for redshirt freshman JD Spielman’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Arkansas State ties the game on quarterback Justice Hansen’s three-yard score with 47 seconds left, rather than just pulling within seven.

“We’re going to have some great stuff,” head coach Mike Riley said after the game. “How many games does it usually take, if not all the games, that you even have to attempt to use your hands team to attempt to recover an onside kick? I mean, you can go a whole season and not use your hands team.

“There was a lot of football tonight.”

And the players think that will help moving forward.

“It’s not fun to have it happen in the first game,” linebacker Luke Gifford admitted, “but it’s definitely a confidence booster knowing we can go out there and do it.”

Tight end Tyler Hoppes said the team as a whole still needs to get better before a Sep. 9 road game against Oregon, saying "it was a little rough" at times during the win.

"They weren’t an easy opponent," he said. "They came out and fought and you had to be focused for three hours and 27 minutes."

The Huskers recovered one of Arkansas State’s two onside kicks. The second bounced over several Nebraska players before ending up with Arkansas State, but Riley said it was just a well-executed kick by the Red Wolves more than anything else.

Now, the Huskers have film on everything and a chance to look at live-game situations rather than just rehearsed drills in practice.

“You can try to simulate it in practice but it’s not the same,” McNitt said. “We know what we can’t do and what we have to do to be able to get the ball back to our offense. The opportunity to be able to see all those different looks is huge for us moving forward.”

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