LINCOLN, Neb. — It looks as if this new Nebraska defense is going to take some time to get up and running the way coach Mike Riley and new coordinator Bob Diaco hope.
That much was obvious after Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen shredded it for 415 yards and three touchdowns and nearly orchestrated one of the weekend’s biggest upsets.
As it was, Hansen overthrew Kendrick Edwards in the end zone on the game’s final play, allowing the Cornhuskers to hold on for a 43-36 in the opener Saturday night.
“It was closer than we expected or how we like it,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “We had to tighten up and finish the game. Got the ‘W,’ and now we move on.”
The Huskers and the 3-4 defense they unveiled had no answer for Hansen and his screen passes to the perimeter and later his throws over the middle. The last of his TDs was a 3-yarder to Edwards that pulled the Sun Belt Conference’s Red Wolves within seven points in the final minute.
Arkansas State recovered the onside kick and moved to the Huskers 11 with 9 seconds left. Jackson broke up a pass in the end zone for Justin McInnis. Hansen then threw too high to Edwards as he rolled right.
“The last play was specially designed for me to just run across the field,” Edwards said. “I could only get one hand on it. It was almost there. I felt it slip out of my hand. It was very catchable.”
Nebraska’s defensive foibles resulted in the Wolves totaling 497 yards and overshadowed the breakout rushing performance of Tre’ Bryant, who ran for a career-high 192 yards and a touchdown, and the debut of Tanner Lee, who threw for 238 yards and two scores.
Hansen finished 46 for 68, setting the school record for completions and tying the Nebraska opponent record.
The Huskers tried to put away the game by handing the ball to Bryant in the second half, when he had 114 yards on 18 carries. The Red Wolves wouldn’t go away, though.
“I’m not much for moral victories. Getting close is not what we came here for,” ASU coach Blake Anderson said. “Looking at this one I felt like it would be a winnable game. We played well enough at times but we made too many mistakes. I do feel like we’ve got a good football team in the locker room and we can improve.”
The Huskers feel the same way.
“I think we ran into a buzz saw tonight, a team that really played well against us,” Riley said. “The first thing we have to shore up is big plays.”
Arkansas State: Hansen picked up where he left off last season when he won eight of 10 starts and led the Red Wolves to a fifth Sun Belt Conference title in six years. Five of his receivers caught at least five passes. The defense simply couldn’t handle Bryant, and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, who’s chasing the FBS career sack record, was no factor.
Nebraska: Diaco’s defense will get sliced and diced by the fans after Hansen did the same to it. Lee turned in a solid opening performance, getting the ball out quick and distributing the ball well among his backs and receivers. Bryant clearly answered the question about who is the Huskers’ top back.
GETTING THEIR KICKS
JD Spielman wasted no time one-upping Blaise Taylor in the first quarter.
Arkansas State’s Taylor went 63 yards for his fourth career punt return for a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Spielman went 99 yards for a TD on the first touch of his college career.
Taylor’s punt return was the first for a touchdown against the Huskers since Wes Welker ran one back 85 yards in 2001. Spielman’s kick return for a TD was the Huskers’ first since Kenny Bell went 99 yards at Penn State in 2013.
Bryant smashed his previous rushing highs of 13 carries and 56 yards. His 192 yards were the most by a Husker since Terrell Newby rushed for 198 yards against South Alabama in 2015. With 31 carries, he was the first Nebraska back to top 30 since Ameer Abdullah had 35 for 229 yards against Miami in 2014.
Arkansas State closes out its home-and-home series with Miami in Jonesboro. The Hurricanes won the first meeting 41-20 in Miami.
Nebraska plays Oregon for the second straight season, this time in Eugene. The Huskers won 35-32 in Lincoln last year.