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Despite leading the nation with nine interceptions and three pick-sixes through his first four games as starting quarterback, Nebraska continues to express nothing but confidence in Tanner Lee.
There was a point in Saturday’s win over Rutgers, after Lee had thrown his third interception for a touchdown in his past seven quarters, where a large portion of the Memorial Stadium crowd booed when the junior came back onto the field for another drive.
Lee was able to help the offense rally back and earn a much-needed victory, but there were still plenty of questions after the game as to how much longer the Huskers would ride with the Tulane transfer before making a change.
As he did in his postgame interview, head coach Mike Riley again stressed that Lee was the starter and the quarterback who gave Nebraska the best chance to win each week. That said, Riley added that NU had to find ways to take some of the pressure off of Lee’s shoulders going forward.
“The first thing that we try to do is decide what is the best way to help him with that,” Riley said. “We’ve got to continue to do that, and we’ve got to be very, very thoughtful in the protection and the routes that we put into the game and prepare him best for the choices he can make and for the defenses he’s going to see and where the ball should go. A lot of that has to do with continued work with his preparation.”
Riley noted that this is hardly the first time he’s dealt with a quarterback going through these types of struggles. He said even some of his best QBs at Oregon State - such as Sean Mannion, Derek Anderson, and Matt Moore - all struggled at points before developing into NFL signal callers.
In fact, Riley pointed to one game where Moore completed 28-of-32 passes against Arizona, and not a single pass hit the turf. “They were all caught,” he said.
The key to getting Lee through his early slump was to continue to encourage him in practice and also adjust the offensive game plan to take some of the pre- and post-snap decisions off his plate. Riley said it wasn’t a matter of simplifying the offense, but condensing it to things Lee does especially well.
But regardless of what plays are called, Riley said it was also up to Lee to make better, safer decisions with the football and not try to win games with every throw.
“If you ask the No. 1 thing (Lee needs to improve), it’s choices with the football,” Riley said. “But the other thing he can do is don’t make a bad play worse. I think when a guy wants to make a play, and frankly, when we’re not doing as well as we want to, you tend to force things.”
Lee was quick to take the blame for his poor play the past few weeks, admitting that he’s made far too many bad decisions that have cost his team with interceptions.
“I need to stop hurting the team with turnovers,” Lee said. ‘That’s something I’m well aware of, and I’m continuing to work hard on that. As we get ready for Illinois, I’ll continue to study hard and continue to make plays and get us in the right plays and put the ball in our playmakers’ hands.”
Offensive line atones for NIU struggles with strong day vs. Rutgers
Last week was a long, rough week for Nebraska’s offensive line.
Not only did the Huskers suffer one of the worst home defeats in program history in a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois, the bulk of the blame for the defeat was placed on the play of the o-line.
Rushing for less than 100 yards for the first time of the year and giving up numerous hits on Lee in the pocket, the offensive line made the top of many fans’ lists of NU’s biggest problems.
That theme changed in a big way following Saturday’s win over Rutgers, as the unit put the offense on its back and carried the Huskers to a dominant second-half comeback victory.
“I was impressed with the mentality going into the game with that group,” Riley said. “That group stayed pretty quiet all week, and really I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know if that meant, wow, these guys are beat, or if they’re going to come out fighting, and they came out fighting.
“And they did it with a couple new faces in there, which is impressive. They stayed with it. In a good recipe for a win, the part that they played was very good as to what this team can look like.”
Junior left guard Jerald Foster said that was exactly the type of game the offensive line needed to get its confidence back. Nebraska ran the ball on 47 of its 73 total plays, including 32 of its 40 snaps in the second half.
“It was great,” Foster said. “Having the pressure on your back is always nice. It’s better than sitting on the sideline and watching the defense have to do it or us just pass pro-ing and watching the quarterback and receivers out there doing it. Having it on us was great.”
Jaimes impresses in rare debut
Nebraska had been excited about Brenden Jaimes’ potential basically since the day it started recruiting him, and it didn’t take long for him to start living up to those lofty expectations.
With senior David Knevel and redshirt freshman Matt Farniok out with injuries, Jaimes became just the fifth true freshman to start a game since freshmen regained eligibility back in the early 1970s.
That feat has been just as rare with Riley’s teams during his career, as he could only remember two other players - Michael Philipp (2009) and Isaac Seumalo (2012) at Oregon State - who cracked his starting offensive lines.
“It’s been rare in our life in college football for an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman,” Riley said. “We recognized this kid’s ability and kind of his unfazed mentality of playing with our team when we started camp. It was impressive.
“We noticed him right away as being different. Even though we didn’t expect him to be active, that’s why we kept him on the travel squad and working with the varsity.”
Riley said they ideally still would have liked to redshirt Jaimes to give him a year of strength and conditioning and to add some bulk to his 6-foot-5, 280-pound frame.
But based on his impressive debut on Saturday, Jaimes has already established himself as a trusted piece on Nebraska’s offensive line this season and the next three years to come.
“I think he played well,” Foster said. “Him coming out and playing the game that he played, at least in my eyes, was great. It was great to see him step up to the plate and do what he needed to do to be able to get us that victory.
“Being a young guy I would’ve come in with more nerves than he did. He definitely exceeded my expectations, and I’m happy to be able to have him play with us.”
Quick-thinking Decker shines as starting center
Nebraska had another new face on its starting offensive line against Rutgers, as sophomore Michael Decker made his first start of the season in place of injured junior Cole Conrad.
Like Jaimes, Decker definitely raised a few eyebrows with his play in the most extensive playing time of his college career.
“I was really impressed with Mike,” Riley said. “I liked how kind of analytical he was on the sideline with information, like ‘this is what they’re doing.’ He’s smart, he played tough. He got his first real long-time experience. I’m proud of him and excited for him.”
An Academic All-Big Ten selection last year who carries a 3.736 cumulative grade-point average, Decker’s mental awareness both on the field and on the sideline during Saturday’s win impressed his coaches and teammates as much as anything.
“He’s an extremely smart guy, and I think he did a great job of articulating what he was seeing and being able to convey that to the rest of the guys,” Lee said. “I think he did a great job of that and keeping his composure. That really helped us out.”
***Running back Tre Bryant (knee) did not dress for Monday’s practice, and safety Aaron Williams (unknown) and receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El (unknown) both wore green no-contact jerseys.
***Receiver Stanley Morgan (neck) and linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (foot) both practiced on Monday.
***Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said they were able to finally find some identity runs in Saturday’s win over Rutgers, especially in the second half. He said they found a handful of run plays that worked and then ran some different variations of the same plays by dressing them up with shifts and different formations.
***Langsdorf said even when Bryant does return to action they would probably still give Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo more of a workload from where things were prior to Bryant’s injury. He said Wilbon and Ozigbo have earned that right with their play the past couple weeks.
***Langsdorf said it was obvious that not having Morgan available vs. Rutgers hurt NU’s passing game, and they’re hoping he’ll be fully back soon. Receivers coach Keith Williams said Morgan was “day-to-day” in his recovery.
***Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said there would be no starting jobs guaranteed to be waiting for guys who are out with injuries right now. He said if they feel another player has won the job, the previous starters will have to earn it back.
***Cavanaugh said if Jaimes were a recruit coming out of high school right now, he’d be recruited by every school in the country. Not only does Jaimes have talent, Cavanaugh said what separates him for a freshman is how much the game means to him and how hard he works to get better.
***Langsdorf and Cavanaugh said they were really impressed with Decker on Saturday. Langsdorf said Decker was “really sharp” and an “excellent communicator” on the field and in the sideline. Cavanaugh said he was definitely surprised by how well Decker played.