With just over two minutes left in the game, Nebraska’s defense had just come up with a big third-down stop to force an Oregon punt and give its offense a chance to tie the game down 42-35.
Duck punter Adam Stack booted a returnable kick to the NU 43-yard line, where former Freshman All-American return man De’Mornay Pierson-El was waiting.
However, instead of running back the punt, Pierson-El opted to call for a fair catch. Groans from the 15,000 or so Husker fans at Autzen Stadium immediately followed.
After the game, the senior wide receiver and punt returner admitted he made a mistake not trying to make a play on the punt. But it was just another recent instance of Pierson-El not looking like his normal game-changing self in the return game.
He didn’t return a single punt in five attempts against Oregon, and he fair caught his only fielded punt the week before against Arkansas State.
That hasn’t changed new special teams/safeties coach Scott Booker’s high opinion of Pierson-El one bit, though.
“De’Mornay has done a great job for the University of Nebraska before I’ve been here,” Booker said. “There are going to be plays when everybody looks at, and ‘Ah, man, we wish we had that back, we wish we had this back.’
“But I have the ultimate confidence in De’Mornay that he’s going to make the right decision for us and he’s going to make the correct play, because sometimes the correct play is to make a fair catch or to make a Peter call, so again, I have the utmost confidence that he’s going to make the right play.”
Pierson-El made another questionable decision on a return against Oregon in the first quarter, when he called for a fair catch despite being backed up to Nebraska’s own five-yard line.
“Obviously when we’re inside the eight-yard line, we like the ball to bounce,” Booker said.
Pierson-El said it has been an adjustment working under Bookers’ more aggressive return style compared to a more conservative approach under former NU special teams coach Bruce Read.
“It is dramatically different,” Pierson-El said. “Different coaches, different schemes. This one is just a little bit more aggressive, but we just got to rep some things out for the most part…
“Just more repetition. Just getting more used to everything as a unit and getting more comfortable with it.”
Riley has noted several times that punt returns across college football in general have changed significantly in recent years to due to the popularity of the rugby style directional punting.
However, that makes it even more important for Pierson-El to capitalize on the return opportunities he does get. Booker said he has no doubt his star return man would get back to his play-making self in no time.
“To say that I’ve lost any confidence in De’Mornay would be the furthest thing from the truth,” Booker said. “He has been doing this for a long time, and we have confidence that he’s going to make plays back there and make the right decisions and make the right choices for us.”
Bryant, Kalu ruled out vs. Northern Illinois
Riley had a laundry list of an injury report to deliver following Thursday’s practice, including announcing that two key starters would be out against Northern Illinois.
Riley said that running back Tre Bryant, who has posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts to start the season, would be ruled out on Saturday due to a lingering knee injury he aggravated last week at Oregon.
Riley said Bryant did not practice all week, and that junior Mikale Wilbon - who has all of five rushing attempts through two games - would be the Huskers starter vs. the Huskies.
“Tre has not practiced, and I was kind of hoping to wait as long as I could, but it’s probably too late,” Riley said. “He won’t play.”
Riley said he didn’t anticipate a major shift in the offensive game plan without Bryant, who had taken 51 of the team’s 65 total carries through the first two weeks.
“Actually, we don’t have to change much with any of the backs,” Riley said. “They’re all pretty much all-purpose. They all have good hands, they’re all knowledgeable about what we do… They’re all versatile enough to play all of the time.”
The next bit of bad news Riley had was that senior safety Joshua Kalu would also be out on Saturday due to a hamstring injury he suffered against Oregon.
Junior Antonio Reed will take Kalu’s spot in the starting lineup.
“We are pretty darn thin in the secondary…” Riley said. “It starts coming fast in football season with all these things.”
On top of that, Riley said senior right tackle David Knevel would be out for a second straight game with an ankle injury he suffered in the season opener.
Redshirt freshman Matt Farniok will make his second career start in his place.
Injuries taking their toll on NU secondary
A lot has changed from the starting secondary Aaron Williams thought he’d be a part of going into the offseason than the one he’ll be leading against Northern Illinois on Saturday.
With Kalu now out, the Huskers will be without three preseason projected starters in Kalu, senior cornerback Chris Jones (knee) and safety JoJo Domann (knee).
With Reed getting the nod as the other safety opposite Williams, it will mark just his second career start.
Even though the Huskers have lost a lot of talent and experience in the secondary, Williams is still confident the group will be ready to roll on Saturday.
“I feel like the injuries haven’t impacted our play,” Williams said. “I just feel like, as a group, we’re just trying to get better every day, and a lot of players right now are getting a lot of game experience, so we’re just trying to build off every play.
“It really starts in our preparation in practice, so we’ve just got to start, as a group, being more dialed in. The injuries and all that, I don’t think it’s impacted us.”
Redshirt freshman Marquel Dismuke also got some action at safety in Kalu’s absence, and most had assumed senior Kieron Williams - who led NU with five interceptions last season - could be in line for a bigger role on defense this week.
However, when asked who the next safeties on the depth chart would be after Aaron Williams and Reed, Riley said it was walk-ons Reid Karel and Jeremiah Stovall. Riley said Stovall moved from cornerback to rep at safety this week.
Fast-riser Bradley to make his Husker debut
During his Monday press conference Riley revealed that another true freshman would be thrown into the mix this week in running back Jaylin Bradley.
Not only will Bradley play a role on special teams vs. Northern Illinois, there’s a chance he could see some action in the Huskers’ backfield rotation with Bryant sidelined.
Running backs coach Reggie Davis had no interest in speculating on how big of a role the former Bellevue West standout could have on Saturday.
“If I’m not mistaken, Coach Riley said from the beginning that Jaylin would not be redshirting, so he’s been available,” Davis said. “That’s really nothing new, that’s something we decided a while back…
“Right now he’s doing a lot of things for us on special teams. It’s always a continual process to get him ready to get in on offense, so we’ll continue with that process.”
There’s been some excitement brewing over Bradley’s potential since the start of fall camp, as he was mentioned by name on several occasions by both Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
Langsdorf said even if Bradley doesn’t have much of an impact at running back this season, he’s eagerly awaiting seeing what the true freshman can do down the road.
“He’s got some real talent, he’s just continuing to learn really every practice,” Langsdorf said. “From the beginning of fall camp I think he’s really shown some bright spots in running the ball, and I think he’s a talented, talented, natural runner that way and as a receiver.
“He’s continuing to learn protections and just which way to go on each play, but I’m excited about him. I think he’s going to have a bright future.”
***Safeties Reed and Aaron Williams both wore green no-contact jerseys during Tuesday’s practice, and Riley said that was a coaches’ decision because both were dealing with minor injuries that the staff didn’t want to be worsened by tackling in practice.
***Reed is dealing with a thumb injury and Williams is nursing a shoulder injury, but Riley said both will be ready to go vs. NIU.
***Riley said Pierson-El was dealing with a preexisting shoulder injury and then a new foot injury this week, but the senior came out and “looked the best he’s looked in a while” during Thursday’s practice.
“He was fast and comfortable,” Riley said. “He looked good. His foot was bothering him earlier in the week, his shoulder has been bothering him, but today he looked good. He looked fast.”
***Riley said running back Wyatt Mazour has been out the past three weeks with a quadricep injury he suffered before the first game.
***Riley said he was “all good” with whatever schedule is put in front of his team going forward, regardless of if they play games on Fridays or not. However, he again made it clear that playing on a short week was less than ideal in his opinion.
“If you polled 99 percent of football people across the country, they would rather not play on a short week,” Riley said. “That’s the fact. Nobody in coaching, from junior high to the NFL, is going to say, ‘Yeah, give me a short week this week. That’d be good.’
“Nobody is going to say that. But, we’ll be ready and it’ll be fine. It’s not that big of a deal.”