Nebraska shakes off Rutgers in 2nd half for 27-17 victory
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — An air of “here we go again” hung over Memorial Stadium on Saturday when Rutgers’ Kiy Hester intercepted Tanner Lee early in the second half and ran 33 yards to the end zone to give the Scarlet Knights a three-point lead.
A week earlier here, Northern Illinois had two pick-sixes against Lee in one of Nebraska’s most humiliating losses in years.
When Lee trotted onto the field for the next series against the Scarlet Knights, he got booed, and the Cornhuskers went three-and-out.
But coach Mike Riley stuck with Lee for the possession after that, and the transfer from Tulane completed 6 of 8 passes during a 97-yard drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown in a 27-17 win.
Lee, who has thrown a nation-high nine interceptions, has been the fans’ whipping boy during a poor start to Riley’s third year in Lincoln. He didn’t pretend to not hear the boos.
“That was tough,” he said. “I made a dumb play there, that’s for sure. I think the biggest thing was that we got the ball back inside our own 5 and we finished with a touchdown. That was the most important thing to us right there. We got it done.”
The Huskers (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) pounded away at the Scarlet Knights and wore them down in the second half. Devine Ozigbo ran 24 times for 101 yards after having carried just twice in the first three games, and Mikale Wilbon added 78 yards.
It was a much-needed victory for Riley two days after the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst was announced. With Eichorst out, the focus has shifted to Riley and what he and his team must do the rest of the season for him to keep his job.
Riley got a handshake from university President Hank Bounds as he walked off the field. He appeared worn out at the postgame news conference, speaking a bit softer than usual.
“Winning games are hard,” Riley said. “I would suppose after last week, that game was... These kids are happy right now. They know it was hard, they know they played well, and they knew a lot of new parts played an important role.”
The Huskers were missing top receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. to a neck injury, and a host of other players on both sides of the ball were out with injuries. Rutgers was without playmaker Janarion Grant, who missed the last eight games in 2016 because of a broken ankle and was hurt in the second quarter last week against Morgan State.
The Knights (1-3, 0-1), who have lost 15 straight Big Ten games, had leads of 7-0 and 10-7 in the first half before De’Mornay Pierson-El ran back a punt 63 yards to set up Wilbon’s 4-yard touchdown run that put the Huskers up 14-10 at half.
“We struggled to stop the run, especially in the second half,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “And we gave up the long punt return. When you do those things you’re going to struggle to win games. The second half we wore out, just the lack of depth on the defensive line.”
Rutgers: The Knights turned in a game effort in a tough road environment a week after beating FCS Morgan State to end an 11-game losing streak. For a team lacking much offensive firepower, the absence of Grant was glaring.
Nebraska: The Huskers didn’t earn any style points, but any win is good right now for Riley. Nebraska put this one away by controlling the ball in the second half.
Riley said he never considered taking Lee out and putting in Patrick O’Brien after the pick-six.
“Just by the fact that this is a three-point game, he’s played so much more, and we had a lot of faith that he would bring it back and he did,” Riley said. “He made some real good throws after that. It had nothing to do with how we feel about Patrick, either. This guy (Lee) has been in the games and he sucked it up and made some throws.”
Rutgers’ Jerome Washington kept alive his team’s opening drive with a behind-the-back catch of Kyle Bolin’s third-and-9 pass. Washington started to drop the ball but somehow it ended up on his calves, with Washington reaching around to hold it there as he tumbled over. Seven plays later the Scarlet Knights scored.
The Huskers, already missing Joshua Kalu, lost safety Aaron Williams when he was called for targeting on Rutgers’ first series. Williams initiated helmet-to-helmet contact after Hunter Hayek made a catch long the sideline.
Rutgers hosts No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday.
Nebraska visits Illinois on Friday night.
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