Stryker: Scary B-movie finish ends well for Big Red

Did you ever have one of those dreams where you’re almost safely home, but out of nowhere, a pursuing monster comes closer and closer, and the harder you run, the slower you move?

Yeah, a real B-film climax. That’s what Nebraska-Arkansas State degenerated into. Luckily for Nebraska fans – at least the ones who stayed to the final play – it was a happy ending, thanks mainly to sophomore I-back Tre Bryant, quarterback Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman slotback J.D. Spielman.

Backpedaling into their own end zone as a half-full Memorial Stadium held its breath, the Blackshirts staved off disaster by stopping the Red Wolves on two passes into the end zone in the game’s final 10 seconds, holding on by their proverbial fingernails to edge the Sun Belt Conference visitors 43-36 in a less-than-intense game punctuated with highlight reel plays on offense and special teams, including Arkansas State’s last-minute touchdown followed by an onside kick recovery with 46 seconds remaining.

Nebraska showed good balance on offense, running and passing for more than 200 yards apiece for the first time since early last season. The Red Wolves’ highly-touted pass rush bothered NU at times, but didn’t gain any real traction. There is reason to believe that the offense can be truly effective under Lee. But the defense? Let’s just say the Red Wolves found lots of creases in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense.

If you were irked that Nebraska didn’t come within sniffing distance of the preseason Top 25 poll, and if you were hoping your Cornhuskers would gain some national respect Saturday night against Arkansas State, well, you’ll have to wait at least another week. Not only did Nebraska fail to get any separation against a respectable mid-major football program, it was simply not the stronger team on the field at the end of the game. That’s not how you impress the national media. In his postgame press conference, ASU head coach Blake Anderson made it quite clear he considered this a winnable game. I wonder how he feels about the Red Wolves’ home game against Miami next week.

Despite the shaky finish, Nebraska managed to hang onto its 20-game winning streak in home night games, and stayed unbeaten under Mike Riley when it rushes for 200 yards. When the Huskers run the ball well and go plus-two in turnovers, they should be home free, but this was not a thing of beauty, this 3-hour, 52-minute game filled with penalties, ponderous video reviews and 68 passes by Arkansas State junior quarterback Justice Hansen, which tied an all-time record for most pass attempts by a Nebraska opponent. He completed a school-record 46 of them for 415 yards and three touchdowns and he fought until the final second, coming up a touchdown short.

It should never have been that close, not with Lee making a reasonably crisp first start at quarterback. He completed 19 of 32 passes for 238 yards and a pair of TDs with no interceptions, but he misfired on his last three passes when NU needed to close out the game.

Also making his first start, Spielman returned a first-quarter kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and caught two passes for 44 yards, including a 35-yard catch against the west sideline in early in the fourth quarter when Lee lofted a perfectly-thrown ball into a narrow window. It set up De’Mornay Pierson-El’s 8-yard touchdown catch with 12:25 left, and NU seemed on the way to pulling away with a 41-26 lead. But from that point on, Arkansas State dominated the action.

A Husker team that appeared to be gaining strength and ready to pull away early in the fourth quarter, instead inexplicably started coasting and almost paid with a stunning last-second upset loss. Toss in all the cliches you can think of. The Huskers were on the ropes. They ran out of gas. They were stumbling toward the finish. Cue the scary music. Arkansas State outgained the Huskers 143-26 over the last 12 minutes, 25 seconds.

Thank heaven for Bryant. He ran for a career-high 195 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. He played his best in the second half, with 18 carries and 114 yards. He ran decisively – one cut, stick your foot inthe dirt and head upfield. Looks like the Huskers have their clear-cut No. 1 running back.

The Husker defense should have taken a cue or two from Bryant’s decisiveness. Instead, the Blackshirts were perplexed, stressed and on their heels for much of the game. They allowed 32 first downs, 497 total yards and finished the game in retreat mode. Joshua Kalu and Tyrin Ferguson intercepted passes, but Justice and this teammates simply kept coming, mainly because the Huskers generated almost no pass rush against a Red Wolf offensive line that entered the game with a combined two starts to its credit.

It would have been nice to see Danny Langsdorf let Bryant close out the Red Wolves instead of going away from the run late in the game. It may have been the best way to keep the Husker defense from bleeding yardage in the final minutes.

Diaco made some adjustments in his first game as defensive coordinator, and for much of the second half, they appeared to work. Arkansas State had 26 points and 289 total yards at halftime, but had problems moving the ball throughout the third quarter. The Red Wolves seemed to have run short of answers until their closing burst after Pierson-El’s touchdown.

Did Diaco hold back a lot on defense against Arkansas State while looking ahead to Oregon? It’s a nice thought, but with a game in the balance, it’s hard to imagine him keeping a lot of his best schemes in his back pocket. He’ll need a lot more to slow down the Ducks next week.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at [email protected]