Lincoln – Nebraska’s defense produced another strong effort, while the offense used a powerful ground game fueled by Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon to claim a 27-17 win over Rutgers in its Big Ten opener at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Playing in front of the 357th consecutive sellout on a day where temperatures soared above 90 minutes, the Huskers overcome plenty of adversity to start Big Ten play at 1-0 while evening its their overall record to 2-2. Rutgers slipped to 1-3 overall and 0-1 in the conference.
Nebraska dominated the second half on both sides of the ball to score the game’s final 13 points after taking a 14-10 lead to the locker room at halftime. Despite Nebraska’s statistical dominance, Rutgers owned a 17-14 lead early in third quarter after Scarlet Knight defender Kiy Hester intercepted a Tanner Lee pass and raced 33 yards into the end zone for a touchdown just 53 seconds into the second half.
That was the last highlight for the Scarlet Knights. After the two teams traded unproductive drives, Lee led the Huskers on a massive 17-play, 97-yard march that consumed 8:10 and culminated with his eight-yard touchdown strike to De’Mornay Pierson-El with 2:49 left in the third quarter. The scoring drive was the catalyst for a Nebraska offense that held time of possession for 22:50 in the second half.
While the Husker offense assumed control, the Blackshirts continued to show consistent improvement on defense. After allowing Rutgers to open the game 2-for-2 on third-down conversions on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a Gus Edwards two-yard touchdown run, the Blackshirts forced the Scarlet Knights to go without a conversion on their next eight third-down attempts.
The Blackshirts also provided a big play of their own late in the third quarter with Antonio Reed’s interception and 19-yard return with 30 seconds left in the quarter. Reed, who hauled in his first career interception, actually returned it to the end zone, but the pick-six was wiped off the board by illegal blocks by the Big Red. However, Nebraska converted the turnover into points five plays later on Drew Brown’s 32-yard field goal with 14:10 left in the game. Reed was one of three Huskers to finish with a team-high six tackles on the afternoon.
Then Ozigbo took over. The junior from Sachse, Texas, who entered the game with just two carries for eight yards through three games on the season, carried nine times for 42 yards on a game-clinching 12-play, 50-yard drive that was capped by Brown’s 27-yard field goal with 5:59 left.
Ozigbo finished the game with a career-high 24 carries for 101 yards, including 19 carries for 85 yards in the second half. It was Ozigbo’s second career 100-yard rushing game, as he came up just two yards short of his previous career best of 103, which he established last season against Fresno State.
Ozigbo and starter Mikale Wilbon led a Big Red rushing binge that racked up 197 yards on 47 yards against the Rutgers defense. Wilbon finished with 78 yards and a touchdown, which came with 4:48 left in the first half that gave the Huskers a 14-10 halftime edge. Freshman Jaylin Bradley added the first six totes of his Big Red career to finish with 16 yards, while freshman wide receiver pitched in one carry for six yards.
Spielman added a career-best five receptions for 46 yards and a score to lead Nebraska’s air attack. Spielman’s 18-yard touchdown reception on a Lee pass with 6:52 left in the first quarter tied the game at 7-7.
Pierson-El contributed three catches for 22 yards and a touchdown, which gave Nebraska the lead for good at 21-17 with 2:49 left in the third quarter. Pierson-El also gave Nebraska’s its biggest play of the day with his 63-yard punt return midway through the second quarter that gave Nebraska a drive start at the Rutgers 4 to set up Wilbon’s four-yard touchdown plunge.
For the game, Nebraska finished with 306 yards of total offense on 73 plays while accumulating 35:21 of possession time. The Blackshirts held the Scarlet Knights to just 194 total yards on just 53 plays, including just 68 rushing yards on 24 carries.
Lee completed 13-of-26 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns on the day, but he did throw a pair of interceptions that led to 10 of Rutgers’ 17 points on the afternoon.
Bolin managed to completed 15-of-29 passes for 126 yards, but the Blackshirts did not allow a passing touchdown and hauled in a pair of interceptions of their own including a game-securing pick by senior linebacker Luke Gifford late in the fourth quarter. In addition to bringing down his first career interception, Gifford matched Reed and Dedrick Young II for the team lead with six tackles. Gifford also notched a tackle for loss, as did Young.
Trevor Morris led the Scarlet Knights with 13 stops, while Saquan Hampton added 10 tackles.
Sophomore Caleb Lightbourn also continued his strong punting for the Nebraska special teams, punting five times for a 38.8-yard average including three punts inside the 20. He also boomed his final punt of the day for a career-long 64 yards.
Nebraska makes its first Big Ten Conference road trip next Friday when the Huskers take on Illinois in Champaign. Live national television coverage will be provided by FS1 with kickoff set for 7 p.m. (CT).
Nebraska 27, Rutgers 17
Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017
Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)
First Quarter (7-7)
RUT – 10:28 – Gus Edwards 2 run (Andrew Harte kick), 11 plays, 75 yards, 4:32, RUT 7-0
NEB – 6:52 – JD Spielman 18 pass from Tanner Lee (Drew Brown kick), 7 plays, 75 yards, 3:30, 7-7
Second Quarter (NEB 14-10)
RUT – Harte 33 FG, 6 plays, 28 yards, 2:21, RUT 10-7
NEB – Mikale Wilbon 4 run (Brown kick), 1 play, 4 yards, 0:05, NEB 14-10
Third Quarter (NEB 21-17)
RUT – 14:07 – Kiy Hester 33 INT return (Harte kick), RUT 17-14
NEB – 4:48 – De’Mornay Pierson-El 8 pass from Lee (Brown kick), 17 plays, 97 yards, 8:10, NEB 21-17
Fourth Quarter (NEB 27-17)
NEB – 14:10 – Brown 32 FG, 5 plays, 22 yards, 1:18, NEB 24-17
NEB – 5:59 – Brown 27 FG, 12 plays, 50 yards, 7:16, NEB 27-17