LINCOLN — Roughly 25 steps from where Nebraska coach Mike Riley recalled the moment that will define the first game of his NU tenure, two big-screen televisions were intermittently reliving the Hail Mary that BYU used to stun the Huskers 33-28, silencing all but three small segments of fans in Memorial Stadium.
That play will be the memory of this opening college football weekend. A backup Cougar quarterback launching a pass that was caught by a giant BYU receiver right at the goal line, for a touchdown that ended Nebraska's 29-game winning streak in home openers.
“You needed to have somebody in front of him, not just behind him,” Riley said of BYU wideout Mitch Mathews, who caught the 42-yard pass after time expired. On the field, Riley doubled over after the play, his headset falling off and resting on his shoulder.
“I didn’t see him until the last second,” said safety Nate Gerry of his confusion on the play. Gerry tried, in vain, to rip the ball away from Mathews. Several more red jerseys watched it happen, then watched BYU’s whole team, including coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Cougar mascot, run all over the field.
“You’ve got that pit in your stomach,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “And we shouldn’t have been in that position, either.”
That’s a bingo.
Imagine a “how to lose a football game” checklist. Nebraska marked a lot of the boxes.
The kind of football team Riley wanted to produce to start this season — smart, disciplined, savvy — showed up a few times Saturday. That'd be the bunch that strung together three touchdown drives of 60 yards or longer, and made some halftime defensive adjustments to slow BYU's offense.
The rest of the time?
“We were our biggest enemy,” tight end Trey Foster said.
Yes. Big busts on defense that resulted in long scrambles and even longer passes. Twelve penalties, several of them drive killers, for 90 yards. Two missed field goals from Drew Brown.
And, most crucially, three dead drives in the fourth quarter because the Huskers couldn’t convert third-and-short. Three times, Nebraska had a chance to muzzle the chirpy Cougars. NU botched all three. A failed quarterback sneak on third-and-1. A blown-up stretch play on another third-and-1. A jet sweep call on third-and-3 that lost 2 yards. After the last of those, Brown missed a 41-yard field goal that set up the game’s final sequence.
“All of them,” Riley said when asked which of those three calls he’d like to have back.
“We’ve got to have a better short-yardage package for sure,” Langsdorf said.
The running game, in general, was stuck in mud — 126 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry — and provided little help to quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns. He was particularly sharp to start the game, completing 10 of his first 12 in leading two first-quarter touchdown drives. He even threw a chop block to spring Jordan Westerkamp on the first touchdown.
But the offense busted a gasket in the second quarter. Armstrong was flushed into hurried throws and an intentional grounding penalty. He fumbled an exchange with I-back Mikale Wilbon; the Cougars recovered at the NU 22. Meanwhile, BYU’s attack — initially led by quarterback Taysom Hill — found its stride. Hill riddled NU’s pass defense with scrambles up the middle and darts to open receivers. Nebraska crashed the party of BYU’s designed running plays, but generated only a modest pass rush, which allowed Hill — and backup Tanner Mangum — to buy time and make plays.
“We weren’t all on the same page with some plays,” Gerry said, noting that Nebraska had true freshmen starting at linebacker (Dedrick Young) and safety (Aaron Williams). “We’d communicate one thing and just not simply execute it. We let a lot of plays hurt. Just a lot of fundamental errors from the corner and safety standpoint.”
BYU led 24-14 at the break. On the last play of the first half, Brown missed a 40-yard field goal. NU’s first drive of the second half was an ugly three-and-out and the punter, Sam Foltz, badly sprained his ankle. Several more Huskers had been in and out of the game with injuries.
Hill quickly moved the Cougars into Nebraska territory, poised for the kill.
Gerry plucked a Hill pass out of the air instead, and flipped the game's momentum with his interception.
Nebraska scored after Gerry's pick, and took a 28-24 lead after Armstrong's nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Foster. Early in the fourth quarter, Hill had left the game with a foot injury that ended his season, and potentially his career, at BYU. Redshirt freshman Tanner Mangum — who returned in June from a two-year Mormon mission in Chile — replaced him.
Mangum first converted a fourth-and-1 from his own 41 with a wild scramble-and-throw that resulted in a 38-yard pass. Several Nebraska defenders missed a chance to sack Mangum. That play led to a field goal that cut NU’s lead to one with 7:51 left.
Nebraska couldn’t close it out. On their final drive, the Huskers advanced to the BYU 24. Brown missed his second field goal with 48 seconds left.
“My teammates got to rely on me to make big kicks, and I didn’t do that today,” Brown said. “It’s pretty simple.”
On BYU’s final drive, Nebraska elected not to blitz. Mangum moved the Cougars to the Husker 42 with one second left. NU called time out before the Hail Mary; Riley said he wanted the Huskers to know what they were doing.
They didn’t appear to know what they were doing on the actual Hail Mary.
Mathews, who caught the game winner, lined up to the far left side and ran a post to the right. Safety Aaron Williams failed to jam him. Mangum rolled right, threw it up short of the goal line, and Mathews caught it in front of Gerry and linebacker Luke Gifford.
“Practiced it one time, never with Tanner,” said Mathews, who caught the Hail Mary in the same corner of the same end zone that NU wideout Jordan Westerkamp caught his in the 2013 Northwestern game. “You just hope that you can go jump ball and get that thing.”
“Once we saw his hands on the ball,” Armstrong said, “we knew it was over.”
So did many of the 89,959 fans at Memorial Stadium who started filing out even before the referees had finished reviewing the play. They’d been on the other side of the deal in 2013.
Riley was upbeat in his press conference. That’s his M.O., positivity.
“With that continued effort, we can definitely improve some things and change some things that make us better,” Riley said. “And I have good faith that will happen. There was some pretty good football at times by us.”
The players echoed those thoughts. Armstrong and offensive tackle Alex Lewis told the team in the locker room to keep their heads up. To the press, Armstrong said the team had to let go of the loss and “drive on.”
But Nebraska had this one. Had it and lost it. Frittered away what could have been a momentum-building win. As the Hail Mary replays 100 times this weekend, Nebraska players will know it.
“It happened,” Armstrong said. “We let it happen. We could have avoided that situation. But we didn’t. So it’s on us.”
|Yards per carry||5.1||3.4|
Nebraska is 0-1 all-time against BYU.
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|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
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