“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)
Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …
The Good …
The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.
Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.
Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.
Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.
We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.
The Bad …
The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.
The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.
Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.
Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.
Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.
Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.
Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.
My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?
And The Inevitable Overreaction.
Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.
But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.
And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.
So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.