Offense sputters, but defense leads way to 35-21 victory
Nebraska’s much anticipated 2019 debut left plenty to be desired aesthetically, but the Huskers still got the result they wanted with a 35-21 win over South Alabama on Saturday.
In front of another sold-out crowd of 89,502, NU's offense sputtered through the first two quarters and only led by a touchdown at the break. Luckily, some huge plays from the defense and special teams in the second half provided the spark NU needed to hold on for the win.
Despite being on the field for 79 snaps over 34 minutes of game time, the Blackshirts held up their end of the bargain by forcing five turnovers with four sacks and holding the Jaguars to 7-of-17 on third downs. That made up for an offense that couldn't find any rhythm whatsoever, finishing with just 276 total yards and committing three turnovers of its own.
Nebraska won the coin toss and opted to receive, and a nine-play opening drive ended in a one-yard touchdown run by Dedrick Mills to put NU up 7-0 right out of the gates.
The hot start would quickly go cold for the rest of the day, though, as the Huskers’ offense punted twice and had a turnover on downs over its next three possessions.
On the other side, South Alabama gave the Blackshirts all they could handle early, tying the game on a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback Cephus Johnson.
It took until the 9:15 mark in the second quarter for Nebraska to get back on the scoreboard, and it needed a fourth-down conversion and a pass interference call in the end zone on third down to do it. Regardless, Mills punched his way in from a yard out for his second rushing score of the game to cap a 12-play drive and put NU back up 14-7.
That score would hold on into halftime, as freshman walk-on kicker Dylan Jorgenson – who got the start over the injured sophomore Barret Pickering – missed wide right on a 31-yard field goal in the final seconds of the half.
Nebraska averaged just 1.7 yards per rush and 4.3 yards per play, was only 6-of-12 on third-down conversions, and committed five penalties in the first half. The defense did hold USA to 92 yards with two sacks and a takeaway, but the lack of offensive firepower left Memorial Stadium grumbling through halftime.
Needing someone to provide a spark, it was fifth-year senior Eric Lee Jr. who answered the call right away to start the third quarter. Lee, who took over for an injured Deontai Williams at safety, picked off Johnson on the fourth play of the quarter and took it 31 yards to the house to make it 21-7.
After a quick three-and-out stand by the defense, NU’s special teams stepped up with another game-changing play when J.D. Spielman broke loose for a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown. That resulted in a 14-point swing in a span of 3:38 with the Huskers’ offense never seeing the field.
But just when it looked like Nebraska had taken the game over, Spielman muffed a punt on the ensuing series and South Alabama recovered at the NU 13-yard line. That led to a nine-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Davyn Flenord to cut the lead to 28-14 with 6:47 left in the third.
The Huskers’ offense finally got on the field again, and it made some notable changes with running back Maurice Washington (who was held out for the first half for disciplinary reasons) and center Will Farniok replacing Mills and Cameron Jurgens, respectively.
But after a promising start to the half, Martinez was picked off on a bad throw into coverage and South Alabama turned it into another touchdown pass from Johnson to Khameron Taylor to get it down to 28-21.
Yet again, Nebraska needed a big play to change the game, and Cam Taylor stepped up with a huge hit on Johnson that knocked the ball loose and Alex Davis recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
Instead of keeping the momentum going, the offense ended up turning the ball over for a second time in its first nine plays in the second half when Mills coughed it up at the NU 36.
As was the theme of the day, though, Nebraska's defense came up with another game-changing play when Taylor picked off Johnson near the goal line and returned it all the way to the 50. On the ensuing defensive series, Lee came up with his second interception to keep USA at bay.
Nebraska's offense still couldn't do anything with the football, and a couple of big pass plays had South Alabama right back in scoring range with 1:30 left to play. But the Blackshirts came up with one final stop to officially put the game to bed.
The Huskers will return to action next week when they travel to take on Colorado for a 2:30 p.m CT kick on FOX.