1. Nebraska is going to ride or die with Lee
There was a point in the second quarter after Tanner Lee had just thrown his third interception returned for a touchdown in the past six quarters of play, where it seemed like Nebraska had no choice but to bench the junior quarterback.
Many fans inside Memorial Stadium and watching on TV agreed, and when Lee took the field again for the offense’s next drive, he was met with a very noticeable chorus of boos.
Lee’s level-headed demeanor paid off in a big way, as he led the Huskers on a 17-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that changed the entire tenor of the game.
Still, Lee once again put on a forgettable performance under center, completing just 50 percent of his passes (13-of-26) for a mere 109 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
After the game, head coach Mike Riley said he never once considered pulling Lee for backup Patrick O’Brien, meaning Nebraska is ready to roll with Lee as their starter for the foreseeable future. In fact, when asked if there was a significant drop-off between Lee and backup Patrick O'Brien in practice, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said without hesitation: "Yes."
That said, Riley also noted that the passing game absolutely had to get better, and that responsibility lies almost entirely on improved play from Lee.
2. The defense keeps on getting better
After being rolled up for 78 points and more than 1,000 yards of total offense over the first two weeks of the season, it looked like Nebraska’s defense was going to be a major problem as it transitioned under new coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.
But with a strong outing last week against Northern Illinois - aside from giving up the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes - and then a dominant effort vs. Rutgers on Saturday, the unit has made a massive turn for the better.
Neither NIU or Rutgers’ offenses boasted a very daunting challenge, but the Blackshirts did what they were supposed to do and have turned into arguably the strength of the team the past two weeks.
Looking back, 14 of the Huskies’ 21 points were scored by their defense, and then 10 of Rutgers’ 17 points were the direct result of Husker turnovers.
The Scarlet Knights managed just 194 yards of total offense on the day, marking the lowest total Nebraska has allowed under Riley and just edging the previous low of 213 set last week.
The Blackshirts have also held three of their four opponents this season under 100 rushing yards, including a season-low 68 by Rutgers.
3. This needs to be a backfield by committee
Nebraska tried to change things up this season by leaning on one running back to carry almost the entirety of the rushing attack, and through two weeks that plan worked pretty well with sophomore Tre Bryant.
But after Bryant re-aggravated a knee injury in Week 2 against Oregon, the Huskers’ running game took a major step back last week, mustering just 85 yards on 36 carries.
To the credit of Riley and Langsdorf, they realized that simply wasn’t going to cut it in Big Ten play.
With Bryant sidelined for the second straight game on Saturday, NU went back to a committee approach in the backfield, and it worked.
Starter Mikale Wilbon carried 14 times for 78 yards and a touchdown, but it was Devine Ozigbo who stole the show as the game wore on, racking up 101 yards on a career-high 24 rushes.
Bryant’s status will again be in doubt next week, and Riley said the conversation of how to handle the running back duties would be a major topic among the coaching staff the next few days.
4. Offensive line was better, but still must improve
There wasn’t a more scrutinized unit on the entire team last week than Nebraska’s offensive line, as their poor performance against Northern Illinois was considered by many as maybe the biggest issue in the loss.
The good news for the Huskers was that the o-line looked notably improved on Saturday, especially in being able to grind out long, time-consuming drives on the ground in the second half.
Nebraska’s commitment to more of a power approach definitely played a part in that, but when the offense had a chance to take control of the game, it was able to march down the field and get crucial points on the board.
Now, it wasn’t as if the group was flawless by any stretch. There were still too many breakdowns in pass protection, some costly penalties, and a few third-and-short situations where they couldn’t convert.
But Saturday was still a good step in the right direction, especially with a true freshman starting at right tackle in Brenden Jaimes and a new starting center in Michael Decker. The fate of this offense and this team will continue to rely heavily on how the five guys up front perform from here on out.
5. Pierson-El finally makes his mark
For the past two years, Nebraska has been waiting for De’Mornay Pierson-El to get back to being the game-changing punt returner he was a freshman.
While it was only one game, the senior finally looked like his old self on Saturday.
With the offense struggling and Rutgers starting to build momentum, Pierson-El came up with arguably the biggest play of the day in the second quarter when he returned a punt 63 yards to the Rutgers’ four-yard line, setting up an NU touchdown.
Pierson-El also added three catches for 22 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown pass from Lee that capped off the other game-changing moment, NU’s 97-yard scoring drive to take the lead for good.
If Nebraska can get those types of plays from Pierson-El on at least a semi-regular basis, it would do wonders for a team that needs every scoring weapon it can get right now.
6. Jaimes makes impressive Husker debut
When Jaimes took the field for Nebraska’s opening drive against Rutgers, he joined some very select company after right tackles David Knevel and Matt Farniok were ruled out with injuries.
The former Austin (Texas) Lake Travis standout became just the fifth true freshman offensive lineman to start a game for the Huskers since freshmen regained eligibility in the early 1970s. He joined the likes of Matt Slauson (2005), Jacob Hickman (2006), Javorio Burkes (2007), and Tyler Moore (2011).
Jaimes also became just the 11th NU offensive lineman to even play in a game as a true freshman.
It’s unclear when either Knevel or Farniok will be ready to return to action, and based on his impressive debut, Jaimes could see himself back in the starting lineup next week and possibly beyond.
7. Gifford continues to impress
There was a point in the second half when linebacker Luke Gifford came up with a third-down tackle to force a Rutgers punt, and one of his former teammates took to Twitter with some lofty praise.
“12 is the best player on defense this year, up to this point..” former Husker linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey tweeted of Gifford.
The junior from Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast only continued to support Rose-Ivey’s claim as the day wore on, tying for the team lead with six tackles, one tackle for loss, and hauling in the game-clinching interception in the final minute.
Gifford now leads Nebraska with 28 total tackles on the year, is tied for the team lead with two TFLs, and is tied for second with 0.5 sack and one interception.
“It’s really been kind of neat to see Luke’s emergence as a well-respected (player),” Riley said. “What he’s done as a football player, earning the respect of the team definitely playing the best football of his life, and that came from a lot of preparation and the physical development that he made happen in the offseason was a big key factor.”
8. Welcome back, Kieron Williams
Nebraska was already down one starting safety going into the game with Joshua Kalu out with a hamstring injury.
After one defensive play, the Huskers found themselves without their other top safety when Aaron Williams was ejected for a targeting penalty.
With Antonio Reed already filling in for Kalu, NU had to turn to a familiar face who hadn’t played a defensive snap all season to that point in senior Kieron Williams.
Williams, who led the team with five interceptions last season, ended up stepping up big time in his emergency relief appearance. Even though he didn’t record a tackle, Williams’ veteran presence was invaluable for an otherwise young and inexperienced secondary.
“It’s nice to have a guy like Kieron who comes in and has played a lot of football and he’s a veteran too,” Gifford said. “He hasn’t played as many snaps this year, but we have a lot of confidence in him and he can play.”
9. This offense is lacking big-play punch
Injuries played a big role in Nebraska’s overall lack of offensive firepower against Rutgers, but even without guys like Bryant and receiver Stanley Morgan (neck) in the mix, the Huskers haven’t been potent by any stretch.
Not having a player who can break the game open with one big play has severely limited what this offense can do, as they’ve almost become predictable in the passing game and can’t seem to get past the second level running the ball.
As a result, everything is hard for the Huskers' offense right now. Just getting points on the board has been a struggle the past two weeks, and until someone steps up as a legitimate big-play threat, that will continue to be an issue.
It’s good that NU was able to lean on a power running game to grind out yards and clock when it needed to, but as Riley said after the game, that formula has to be supplemented with the ability to stretch the field and open up defenses.
To put it bluntly, Nebraska’s longest play of the game was a 20-yard run by Ozigbo. It’s longest pass was an 18-yard touchdown to J.D. Spielman. That’s just not going to cut it on a weekly basis.
10. NU keeps the wolves at bay, at least for another week
This past week was easily the most tumultuous and stressful Riley has experienced since he took over in Lincoln, and for awhile it looked like things were going to get much worse on Saturday.
But Nebraska was able to pull out a desperately-needed victory at home over one of the few opponents remaining on its schedule that it will be favored against from here on out.
The victory won’t do much to calm the speculation over Riley’s future at NU after this season, but if nothing else it avoided a total catastrophe had the Huskers lost two straight home games to the likes of Northern Illinois and Rutgers.
Maybe the last bit of optimism Nebraska had to cling to after last week’s defeat was the idea that the Big Ten schedule marked the start of a new season. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, but the Huskers still took the first step in the right direction by starting league play 1-0.
This team needed something to feel good about again in the worst way, and no matter how it looked, Saturday’s win will provide exactly that.