In easily the most tumultuous week of the Mike Riley era, Nebraska desperately needed a victory over Rutgers on Saturday to try and calm the waters around the program, if only for another week.
Though it by no means came easily, the Huskers were able to accomplish just that with a 27-17 win to get back to 2-2 on the season and start Big Ten Conference play 1-0.
It was a rocky start to the game for quarterback Tanner Lee and NU’s offense, as they only managed 308 total yards on the day and spotted Rutgers with a pick-six in the third quarter.
But a 17-play, 97-yard touchdown drive late in the third helped turn the tide down the stretch, and Nebraska was able to put its foot down and close out the win in the final minutes.
Lee ended the day just 13-of-26 passing for 109 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks, but the running game was able to shoulder the load to the tune of 47 carries for 197 yards. Running back Devine Ozigbo, who had been a no-show in NU's offense all year, led the way with a career-high 24 carries for a game-high 101 yards.
For the fourth straight week, Nebraska gave up a touchdown drive on the opening possession of the game, as Rutgers marched 75 yards on 11 plays and scored on a two-yard touchdown run by Gus Edwards.
Nebraska didn’t waste any time responding, though, as the Huskers countered with a 75-yard drive of its own and tied it up with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Lee to J.D. Spielman with 6:52 left in the first quarter.
That score would hold into the second quarter, Lee threw his eighth interception of the season to set up a 33-yard field goal by Andrew Harte to put the Scarlet Knights up 10-7.
Desperately needing a spark, the Huskers got a big one from De’Mornay Pierson-El. After struggling with his punt returns all season, Pierson-El finally broke loose with a 63-yard runback to the RU four-yard line.
Running back Mikale Wilbon took it from there with a touchdown run on the next play to give NU a 14-10 lead with 4:48 left in the first half.
Nebraska’s defense then came up with a fourth-down stop to get the ball back at the Rutgers 49 with two minutes left before halftime, but the offense couldn’t do anything with the opportunity. Still, the Huskers went into the locker room with their first halftime lead since the season opener vs. Arkansas State.
That lead didn’t even last a minute into the third quarter, however, as Lee threw his third pick-six in the past two games when Kiy Hester took an interception 33 yards for the go-ahead score.
The Huskers got something going again two possessions later, starting from their own three-yard line and driving all the way inside the Rutgers’ five.
After a personal foul on the Scarlet Knights on a third-and-goal kept the drive alive, Lee hit Pierson-El on an eight-yard touchdown to take a 21-17 lead with 2:49 left in the third. In all, the scoring drive took 17 plays for 97 yards and ate up 8:10 of clock in the process.
Even though a pick-six by safety Antonio Reed on the ensuing series was negated by a pair of blocks in the back during the return, the Huskers were still able to capitalize on their first forced turnover of the day.
Ozigbo got things started with a 20-yard run down to the RU 17-yard line, and that set up a 32-yard field goal by Drew Brown that pushed the lead to 24-17 with 14:10 left to play.
Another three-and-out stop by the defense gave NU the ball back at its own 40, and the Huskers ran the ball on nine of the next 10 plays and took up seven minutes before settling for a 27-yard field goal by Brown, making it 27-17 with 5:59 remaining.
The Blackshirts put the nail in the coffin when linebacker Luke Gifford intercepted Kyle Bolin's pass at the RU 27 with 54 seconds left to play.
Nebraska will return to action next week for a Friday night showdown at Illinois, which is set to kickoff at 7 p.m. and will be televised nationally on FS1.