LINCOLN, Neb. (AP)—After beating up on a second straight opponent from the Sun Belt Conference, Zac Lee and his Nebraska teammates are about to find out how good they really are.
With Lee passing for 340 yards and four touchdowns, the 22nd-ranked Cornhuskers warmed up for next week’s trip to No. 14 Virginia Tech with a 38-9 victory over Arkansas State.
Seemingly never-satisifed Nebraska coach Bo Pelini called his defense “soft” after a season-opening 49-3 win over Florida Atlantic. He said Saturday that the Huskers still aren’t playing up to his standards as they prepare to go on the road for the first time.
Lee’s play at quarterback, however, got a passing grade.
“He’s playing at a high level,” Pelini said. “Other than the quarterback being new, we do have experience and some guys who have played some games. Our offense has been playing well, and I expect that to continue. I like what I’ve seen from that group.”
There was plenty to like against Arkansas State. The Huskers (2-0) scored on five of their first six possessions, ending any hopes the Red Wolves (1-1) had of pulling an even bigger upset than their win at Texas A&M last year.
Lee completed 27 of 35 passes to 11 different receivers and threw no interceptions. He opened the game leading two 80-yard drives and a 46-yarder as the Huskers jumped ahead 21-0.
“Yeah, it was a good day,” Lee said. “I ended up with some decent numbers. Hopefully, that’s how it is every week. That’s kind of my goal.”
Lee was precise from the start. He placed a perfect ball to Curenski Gilleylen along the sideline for 43 yards before flipping a 3-yard pass to redshirt freshman fullback Tyler Legate, who scored on the first offensive touch of his career.
Lee completed five straight on the Huskers’ next series, the last one a 13-yarder for the first of tight end Mike McNeill’s two touchdowns.
“Zac was lights out. What I like about him the most is he’s so doggone efficient,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “He doesn’t get rattled about anything. He can throw it, run it. I’ve really grown to trust him.”
Watson joked with Lee before the game about what types of passes might get him in a groove.
“Whatever you want to call,” Lee replied. “Hopefully, I wake up in a rhythm on game day.
“We had guys open. It’s easy to throw to open guys when you’re hanging out in the pocket.”
Receiver Niles Paul, praised by coaches throughout the preseason, was much more involved after getting shut down last week by Florida Atlantic. He scored from 30 yards on a reverse and caught a 2-yard TD pass, and had a 70-yard TD reception called back because of holding. Paul finished with six catches for 69 yards, both career highs.
Paul’s first career touchdown came on the reverse—a play that until Saturday had gone unused even though it had been on Nebraska’s offensive script since last season.
“I kind of blew it off, thinking we’re not going to ever run it,” Paul said. “We’ve had it every week since last year. We finally run it. It’s a very good play.”
Arkansas State dinged the Huskers for big gainers all afternoon, but the Red Wolves couldn’t sustain much.
They broke through in the second quarter after Corey Leonard hit Jahbari McLennan for 21 yards on a rollout pass on fourth-and-1. Reggie Arnold ran in from a yard two plays later.
ASU also got a 42-yard field goal from Josh Arauco early in the fourth.
“We have to do better at finishing drives and not making mistakes,” Leonard said. “You play the whole game over again without us making mistakes and I think its going to be closer.”
Arnold, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher, had 83 yards on 14 carries. Leonard completed 11 of 20 passes for 131 yards, with McLennan catching seven for 69.
ASU coach Steve Roberts said Nebraska took advantage of mismatches all over the field.
“Their skill people against our skill people, that was a big difference there,” he said. “They played a lot faster than we did.”
Though they’ve outscored their first two opponents by a combined 87-12, Pelini said the Huskers will have to be sharper against Virginia Tech, which won 35-30 in Lincoln last year.
Pelini said there were too many missed tackles and busted assignments the first two games. The Huskers gave up eight plays of 15 yards or longer to the Red Wolves.
“It’s Week 2, and there’s not a football team out there that’s a ‘Steel Curtain’ with Super Bowl-champion execution in Week 2,” Pelini said. “That’s why you practice. I expect our team to be fully prepared to go on the road and meet the challenge ahead.”