Huskers survive season opening scare

Nebraska partakes in the time honored tradition of the Tunnel Walk at Memorial Stadium, Sept. 2, 2017 (KHGI)

LINCOLN --- Sophomore I-back Tre Bryant erupted for a career-high 192 yards to help carry the Nebraska football team to a 43-36 win over Arkansas State in Saturday night's 2017 season opener at Memorial Stadium.

Bryant, whose previous career highs were 13 carries for 56 yards, powered his way to 78 yards in a wild first half, before helping the Huskers take gain control of the game with 114 yards and a touchdown on 18 second-half carries.

Bryant's big night in the backfield in his first career start, helped make a winner of quarterback Tanner Lee in his first game as a Husker. Lee completed 19-of-32 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns without committing a turnover.

Despite solid offensive nights from the young Huskers, which included a career-high five receptions for 102 yards and a score by Stanley Morgan Jr., and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by redshirt freshman JD Spielman on the first touch of his Cornhusker career, Nebraska still had to find a way to survive in the closing seconds against a high-flying Arkansas State passing attack.

Red Wolves junior quarterback Justice Hansen set the Arkansas State record and tied the Nebraska individual opponent passing record by completing 46 throws on a Nebraska opponent-record-tying 68 attempts. He finished with 415 passing yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw a pair of costly interceptions.

Nebraska led 43-29 in the final minute before Hansen hit Kendrick Edwards on a three-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left to pull the Red Wolves within 43-36. Arkansas State then recovered an on-side kick to keep its upset hopes alive. The Husker defense gave ground to the NU 11, but Hansen's final pass attempts of the night were stopped by the Husker secondary to secure a victory.

The Huskers finished with 463 yards total offense on 70 plays, including 225 rushing yards on 38 carries and 238 passing yards on 32 attempts. Arkansas State finished with 497 yards on 89 plays, but managed just 82 yards rushing on 21 carries.

Leading 27-26 at the half, Bryant took over for the Huskers in the third quarter. His one-yard touchdown run with 11:14 left in the third quarter pushed Nebraska's lead to 34-26, before the Blackshirts slowed down the Red Wolves by allowing just 43 yards in the third quarter.

The Huskers extended their lead to 41-26 early in the fourth quarter on an eight-yard pass from Lee to De'Mornay Pierson-El to cap a six-play, 53-yard drive with 12:25 left in the game.

Arkansas State trimmed the margin to 41-29 with 9:27 left on a 31-yard Sawyer Williams field goal, but a safety by the defense on Nebraska's next opportunity pushed the margin back to 43-29 with 5:52 left and gave the ball back to the Husker offense.

But the Big Red were unable to maintain possession and squeeze the time off the clock, leaving the Red Wolves opportunities to escape with a victory, before the Huskers held on defense as time expired.

In a back-and-forth first half that featured long return touchdowns for both teams and and well over 500 yards of total offense, the Huskers worked their way to a 27-26 halftime lead.

Nebraska struck first by forcing a three-and-out on Arkansas State's game-opening drive, before marching 59 yards on 8 plays capped by Drew Brown's 21-yard field goal to give the Huskers a 3-0 lead just 5:08 into the game. Lee completed 2-of-4 passes for 13 yards on the first drive of his Husker career, while Bryant carried three times for 20 yards as Nebraska's starter at I-back.

The Blackshirts forced another three-and-out on Arkansas State's second drive, but Nebraska was also stuffed on its second offensive possession. Caleb Lightbourn boomed a 54-yarder on his first punt of the season, but Red Wolves return man Blaise Taylor made the game's first explosive play after initially fumbling the catch by juking and outrunning the Huskers 63 yards for a punt return touchdown to give Arkansas State a 7-3 lead with 5:07 left in the quarter.

But the ASU lead was short-lived, as Husker redshirt freshman Spielman took the ensuing kickoff at his own one-yard line and raced 99 yards to paydirt for Nebraska's first kickoff return touchdown since Kenny Bell's 99-yard eruption at Penn State in 2013.

The fireworks continued on ASU's ensuing drive, as Hansen completed all eight of his pass attempts for 83 yards on the drive and added a four-yard run to have a hand in all 87 of Arkansas State's yards on the nine-play drive. Hansen capped the drive with his 29-yard touchdown strike to Chris Murray that gave the Red Wolves a 14-10 lead with 2:12 left in the first quarter.

But Lee answered quickly to give the Big Red a 17-14 lead at the end of the first quarter with his 44-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan to cap a four-play, 75-yard drive that took just 1:40.

The Blackshirts stiffened to open the second quarter, giving Lee and the Husker offense a chance to go to work again. Despite being pinned at the NU 9 to start the drive, the Huskers picked up big chunks of yardage with a 12-yard pass from Lee to Pierson-El to open the drive, followed by a 12-yard rush from Bryant and a 17-yard Lee strike to Morgan to move the Big Red to midfield. Two plays later, Bryant unleashed arguably his most electrifying run of the night by breaking multiple tackles, making several other Red Wolves miss before hurdling an ASU defender and churning his legs for extra yards to cap a 24-yard run.

Mikale Wilbon took the drive the rest of the way with back-to-back carries of eight and seven yards to notch his first career touchdown and give the Huskers a 24-14 lead with 9:57 left in the half.

Hansen went back to work for the Red Wolves, moving the ASU offense to the NU 9 after completing 5-of-6 passes. But the Blackshirts made a big play when junior defensive lineman Freedom Akinmoladun deflected a Hansen pass that was intercepted by sophomore linebacker Tyrin Ferguson at the one-yard line.

But the Huskers were unable to take advantage as the Red Wolves answered their biggest play of the first half by hitting Bryant in the backfield to notch a one-yard loss and a safety to trim the Nebraska margin to 24-16 with 7:00 left in the half.

After a one-play break, the ASU offense went back to work, covering 61 yards in 10 plays capped by Hansen's three-yard touchdown pass to Blake Mack to pull within 24-23 of the Huskers with 3:45 left in the half.

Lee engineered a nine-play drive that covered 41 yards before Brown kicked his second field goal of the half with a 41-yarder with 1:02 left to push Nebraska's lead back to 27-23. But Hansen drove ASU 43 yards in eight plays to set up Sawyer Williams 39-yard field goal as time expired in the half.

In the first half, Lee completed 10-of-14 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown, while Morgan hauled in four receptions for 92 yards. Bryant led the Big Red ground game with 78 yards on 13 carries, while Wilbon added 15 yards on two totes and a touchdown.

Hansen completed 28-of-36 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the opening half. Murray pulled down six receptions for 63 yards and a score, while Omar Bayless pitched in five catches for 37. Warren Wand led the ASU ground attack with eight carries for 46 yards.

Overall, Nebraska rolled up 235 yards of total offense, including 98 on the ground, but Arkansas State answered with 289 yards on a whopping 48 plays in the half.

Numbers and notes

Nebraska vs. Arkansas State, Sept. 2, 2017, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

1 –– Nebraska picked up its first win of 2017 and won its season opener for the 31st time in the past 32 seasons. The Huskers scored 43 points in tonight’s game marking the 13th time in 18 openers since 2000 that NU has topped the 40-point mark. Nebraska improved to 3-0 all-time against Arkansas State and 13-0 against current members of the Sun Belt Conference. Nebraska won for the 20th straight time in a night game at Memorial Stadium and improved to 46-5 all-time in home night games

192 –– Sophomore I-back Tre Bryant rushed 31 times for 192 yards, setting career bests in both categories. Bryant’s previous bests were 13 carries for 56 yards against Maryland last season. Bryant passed the yardage total before halftime with 13 carries for 78 yards before intermission. Bryant’s 192 yards were the most by a Husker since Terrell Newby rushed for 198 yards against South Alabama in 2015, and tonight’s effort was the first 100-yard rushing game by a Husker since Newby had 102 yards at Indiana last season. His 31 carries were the most by a Husker under Mike Riley, bettering 28 carries by Newby against South Alabama in 2015. Bryant had the two longest runs of his career, a 35-yard run in the third quarter and a 24-yarder in the second quarter. The last time a Husker topped 30 carries was in 2014, when Ameer Abdullah rushed for 229 yards on 35 carries against Miami.

99 –– Redshirt freshman JD Spielman returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to give Nebraska a 10-7 lead. The kickoff return for a touchdown was the first by a Husker since Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State in 2013. The 99-yard return ties for the fifth-longest kickoff return in school history. Spielman also caught two passes for 44 yards.

102 –– Junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. caught five passes for 102 yards, good for career highs in both categories. His previous highs were five receptions at Wisconsin in 2016, and 93 yards at Indiana in 2016. The 100-yard effort was the first by a Husker since Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore both topped the century mark against Wyoming in 2016. Morgan had a 44-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, the second-longest of his career. He increased his career receiving yardage total to 859, moving him within 141 yards of becoming the 25th Husker with 1,000 career receiving yards.

238 –– Junior quarterback Tanner Lee completed 19-of-32 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Lee’s 238 passing yards were the third most by a Husker in his first career start, trailing Ryker Fyfe (407, at Purdue, 2015) and Joe Ganz (405, at Kansas, 2007). Lee is just the third Husker to start a season opener at quarterback since 2010.

49 –– Nebraska senior place-kicker Drew Brown connected on a 21-yard field goal to open the scoring, and added a 41-yarder in the second quarter, for his 48th and 49th career field goals. He is eight shy of second place on the NU career list held by his brother Kris Brown. Brown has made eight straight field goals since a miss vs. Purdue last season. Brown scored 11 points, increasing his career scoring total to 293 moving him past Ameer Abdullah (288 points) into sixth place on the NU career chart.

Other Notes

• Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen was 46-of-68 on the night for 415 yards and three touchdowns. The 68 attempts tied Tim Rattay (1998) for the most attempts by a Husker opponent and Hansen’s 46 completions were one shy of tying Ratty’s record of 47.

• Nebraska rushed for 225 yards in tonight’s game and improved to 9-0 under Mike Riley when rushing for at least 200 yards. The Huskers are 12-0 under Riley when out-rushing the opposition.

• Nebraska gained better than 200 yards both rushing and passing in the game. This marks the first time NU has posted a 200-200 game on offense since doing so in three straight games last year vs. Oregon, at Northwestern and vs. Illinois.

• Nebraska did not commit a turnover in the game, marking the fourth time in its past five games the Huskers have been turnover-free. Nebraska has won 20 straight games when winning the turnover battle, including an 8-0 mark under Riley.

• Senior safety Joshua Kalu had an interception in the fourth quarter, marking his sixth career interception. .

• Mikale Wilbon’s seven-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the first touchdown of his career.

• Sophomore Tyrin Ferguson had an interception in the second quarter to end an ASU scoring threat for his first career interception.

• Senior tight end Tyler Hoppes had three catches for 40 yards, marking his first career receptions.

• Six Huskers made their first career start in the game including tight ends Connor Ketter and Tyler Hoppes, quarterback Tanner Lee, I-back Tre Bryant, linebacker Luke Gifford and cornerback Eric Lee Jr.

• Arkansas State returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, marking the first punt return for a touchdown against the Huskers since Wes Welker returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown on Oct. 20, 2001 in Lincoln. Iowa’s Drew Ott returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Nebraska in 2014, the marking the most recent score against the Nebraska punt unit.

• Arkansas State recorded a second-quarter safety, marking the first safety against the Huskers since Indiana blocked a punt for a safety last season against the Huskers.

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