With so many new elements and even more question marks still unanswered entering the season opener, it really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that Nebraska got off to a bit of a low start against Arkansas State.
Not many expected those early bumps would lead to as much of a scare as what happened in Saturday night's 43-36 victory.
After going into halftime holding just a one-point lead, the Huskers were finally able to settle down in the second half and go up by 14 deep in the fourth quarter.
But a late score and onside kick recovery by the Red Wolves in the last minute ended up with NU having to make a game-saving defensive stand in the final seconds. Arkansas State ended up with two chances from the NU 11-yard line to tie game, but both ended with incomplete passes.
Heralded junior quarterback Tanner Lee answered the call by going 19-of-32 for 238 and two touchdowns, while sophomore running back Tre Bryant carried the load with 31 carries for 192 yards and a score..
It was a different story for NU’s defense and new coordinator Bob Diaco, as Arkansas State was able to rack up 497 yards of total offense with quarterback Justice Hansen finishing 46-of-58 for 415 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Lee’s opening drive as a Husker got off to a solid start, as he led NU down to the Arkansas State nine-yard line to set up first and goal. But Nebraska would stall from there and settle for a 21-yard field goal by senior Drew Brown.
After a stalled second drive by Lee and Co., the Red Wolves came up with the first big play of the night. On the ensuing punt, Blaise Taylor muffed the ball but picked it up and weaved his way 63 yards for a touchdown to give ASU a 7-3 lead with 5:07 left in the first quarter.
Just when Arkansas State seemed to steal the momentum, J.D. Spielman was there to take it right back. On his first ever kickoff return, the redshirt freshman took it 99 yards to the house to put the Huskers right back on top, 10-7.
Spielman’s return was the fifth-longest in school history and marked NU’s first runback for a score since Kenny Bell took one back at Penn State in 2013.
Using a series of up-tempo screen passes, Arkansas State marched right down the field on its next drive and reclaimed the lead with a nine-play, 87-yard drive capped with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Chris Murray.
The back-and-forth continued when the Huskers got the ball back, as Lee delivered a beautiful strike to Stanley Morgan for a 44-yard touchdown to take a 17-14 lead into the second quarter.
Nebraska would strike again its next drive, this time doing the bulk of the damage on the ground. Bryant rushed three times for 40 yards in the series, and then junior Mikale Wilbon finished it off with a seven-yard touchdown run to make it 24-14.
It looked as if Arkansas State was on its way to answering with another touchdown, but defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun got a hand up to tip Justice Hansen’s pass, and linebacker Tyrin Ferguson came down with the interception at the NU 1-yard line.
The excitement didn’t last long, though, as Bryant was stuffed in the end zone on the very next play for a safety to cut the lead to 24-16 with seven minutes to go in the half.
The Red Wolves got the ball back and again marched deep into Nebraska territory, and on the 10th play of the drive Hansen hit tight end Blake Mack for a three-yard touchdown to bring it to 24-23 with 3:45 to go before half.
Nebraska was able to tack on a 41-yard field goal by Brown, but Brown then shanked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds to spot ASU at its own 35 with 1:02 still on the clock.
Just as they did all half, the Red Wolves drove right down the field and barely got off a 39-yard field goal as time expired to make it 27-26 heading into halftime.
In all, Arkansas State’s offense put up 289 yards on 48 total plays in the first half, with Hansen completing 28-of-36 passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns and a pick.
Nebraska wasted no time getting back to work to open the second half, as Bryant carried six times for 51 yards and punched in a one-yard touchdown run to push the lead back up to 34-26.
Nebraska finally got back on the board again in the fourth quarter, as a 35-yard pass to Spielman set up an eight-yard touchdown strike from Lee to senior wide out De'Mornay Pierson-El with 12:25 to go in the game.
Once again, through, Arkansas State came right back with a scoring drive of its own, this time a 38-yard field goal by Sawyer Williams to make it 41-29 with 9:27 left.
A holding penalty called in the end zone against ASU added two more points for the Huskers to make it a 14-point game with 5:52 left.
The Red Wolves tacked on another touchdown with 47 seconds left on a three-yard pass to Kendrick Edwards that got it back to 43-36. Things got even more interesting when ASU recovered the following onside kick.
Arkansas State ended up driving the ball to the NU 11 with just two seconds left to play, and an incomplete pass sailed out of the back of the end zone to seal the game.
The Huskers will return to action next week for their first road game of the year when they travel out to face Oregon for a 3:30 p.m. CT kick on FOX.