By Tommy Rezac
LINCOLN – Nebraska (2-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) overcame a plethora of injuries and the recent firing of an athletic director to knock off the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) 27-17 on Saturday in front of 89,775 fans at Memorial Stadium on a steamy late-September afternoon.
“Obviously, it was really, really good to win,” Nebraska head football coach Mike Riley said afterward. “I am very proud of these kids. They made some plays and then what was great was when adversity snuck up on us again. The guys just kind of came back and stuck to it and won the game.”
“That was pretty special. That part of it was outstanding.”
Junior running back Devine Ozigbo, having only two carries through the first three games of the season, carried the load for the Huskers on Saturday with a career-high 24 carries for 101 yards. It was Ozigbo’s third career 100-yard rushing game.
Nebraska was without sophomore running back Tre Bryant for the second straight week as he continues to recover from a knee injury.
Junior Mikale Wilbon finished with 14 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. True freshman Jaylin Bradley also saw his first snaps as a Husker running back, tallying six carries for 16 yards.
Riley hopes that three backs can continue that type of production as long as the passing has a better showing.
“I will tell you this, that would be nice,” Riley said to have a running back-by-committee approach,” but we are going to have to throw for more yards.”
Junior quarterback Tanner Lee completed 13-of-26 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns with two more interceptions.
Lee has thrown nine interceptions and seven touchdowns so far this season. Tommy Armstrong threw eight picks in the 11 games he played in last season.
Defensively, the Blackshirts continued to show progress, holding the Scarlet Knights to just 194 total yards; the lowest amount given up in the Mike Riley era.
“I’ve seen the growth since the first week, take out the first half of the Oregon game, come to the second half, and there has been growth,” Riley said of the defense. “Lots of good teaching. Lots of good football today. I thought the kids played sound and I thought a lot of the next-men-up had to step up.”
Nebraska was playing without junior safety Aaron Williams after he was ejected for targeting during Rutgers’ first drive of the game. Senior safety Josh Kalu didn’t play for the second straight game as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
“(Senior safety) Kieron Williams gets in there, Antonio Reed plays and Marquel Dismuke goes in. There’s a lot of new faces playing a lot of ball. I think that’s pretty good.”
Nebraska was able to go into halftime with a 14-10 lead, largely due to a 63-yard punt return by senior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El which set Nebraska up with first and goal at the two-yard-line.
Wilbon punched into the end zone on the very next play for his third touchdown of the season.
It was Pierson-El’s longest punt return since he had an 80-yard return for a touchdown at Iowa in 2014.
Pierson-El now has 12 career punt returns of 25 yards or more.
“I was fearful that the interception was going to be the play that tipped them,” Riley said,” But, what ultimately did was the punt return.”
Lee’s first interception in the second quarter allower Rutgers to kick a field goal and go up 10-7 with 10:20 left in the first half.
Nebraska got the ball to start the second half, but Lee threw a 33-yard pick six to Scarlet Knights’ junior safety Kiy Hester, giving Rutgers the lead back at 17-14 just 53 seconds into the third quarter.
“That was tough,” Lee said. “I made a dumb play there, that’s for sure. I think the biggest thing was we got the ball back inside our own five and we went 17 plays and finished with a touchdown. That was the most important thing for us right there, we got it done. So that was good for us and our offense.”
Nebraska’s offense orchestrated an impressive 17-play, 97-yard drive in the 3rd quarter which was capped off by an eight-yard touchdown pass from Lee to Pierson-El.
That gave Nebraska the lead back at 21-17 with 2:49 left in the 3rd quarter.
The 17-play drive ran 8:10 off the clock.
Riley was pleased with response from Lee and the entire offense after giving up what could have been a fate-changing defensive touchdown.
“I have been there, done that before with a quarterback,” Riley said. “What (the Husker offense) did was just fight back and play. So I was just impressed.”
After Nebraska’s long drive, Rutgers’ senior quarterback Kyle Bolin threw his sixth interception of the season to Huskers’ junior safety Antonio Reed, who took it 37 yards to the end zone, but the pick six was called back by two block-in-the-back penalties by Nebraska.
The interception was the first of Reed’s career.
After the penalties, Nebraska started its drive at the Rutgers 37, and would settle for a 32-yard field goal by senior place kicker Drew Brown, which put Nebraska ahead 24-17 with 14:10 remaining in the game.
After another Rutgers’ three-and-out, the Husker offense, namely Ozigbo, ran the ball and the clock effectively on a 12-play 50-yard drive that ended with a 27-yard field goal by Brown to put Nebraska up 27-17 with 5:59 remaining the 4th quarter.
Ozigbo had 15 carries for 66 yards in the final quarter alone.
“I definitely wanted to prove something for myself and just show I could do it,” Ozigbo said. “And now everybody can say they wished me good luck and it’s just one thing to say it has been built up for awhile.”
“Once I got the opportunity, I tried to do as much as I could with it.”
Rutgers got the ball back twice more in the final 5:59 of the game. One drive ended in a three-and-out, and the other in a first-career interception for Nebraska junior linebacker Luke Gifford.
“It’s been a long week,” Gifford said. “We’ve worked hard this week so it was a good way to finish it off.”
Nebraska goes back on the road Friday to face the Illinois Fighting Illini from Memorial Stadium in Champagne, IL. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. central.