Nebraska vs. Illinois, 9.29.17

Tanner Lee has thrown seven of his nine interceptions in Nebraska's two losses this season.

ERIC GREGORY, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Tanner Lee doesn't always make the right reads on his passes.

He was, however, on-target while assessing the magnitude of Nebraska's home game Saturday night against ninth-ranked Wisconsin.

"I think everything goes up in terms of intensity, heightened level of focus, preparation — everything needs to take a step up when you're playing a team like Wisconsin or any team that's ranked as high as they are and won games like they have," the Husker quarterback said. "It's going to take an all-out effort, and it's something I'm looking forward to."

Heightened intensity, focus, all-out effort — yes, Nebraska (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) will need it all. But the Huskers also will need to play with confidence — which is why Lee's strong performance last week in a 28-6 win at Illinois was of vital importance.

Scoff at that notion if you like. Yes, it was just Illinois. But there is no question an entire team — offense, defense, special teams, everyone — can begin to press if it lacks confidence in the starting quarterback. Lee needed to turn in a performance that inspired hope. He did just that.

Rewind to late last season, when Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong was waylaid by a major hamstring injury. His backup, Ryker Fyfe, had injury issues of his own. Nobody's making excuses for the Huskers' miserable performances in their last two losses of 2016 — 40-10 to Iowa and 38-24 to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl — but Mike Riley's crew clearly lacked anything resembling swagger.

I've been told much of the reason was a prevailing lack of confidence in the quarterback position. It makes sense.

Let's say Lee had endured a fourth straight multiple-interception game at Illinois instead of going 17-for-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns, with no picks. Illinois is the worst team in the Big Ten. So, if Lee had struggled against that defense, would anybody be giving Nebraska a chance of beating Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0), which ranks fourth nationally in total defense and averages four sacks per game?

I think you know the answer.

Never underestimate the importance of the quarterback position in the grand scheme. Players pay close attention. In that regard, note Nebraska junior running back Mikale Wilbon's comment about the importance of Lee's performance against Illinois, particularly as it pertained to decision-making.

"The thing I saw that I liked, one play where I noticed he grew a lot, he just threw the ball away (on a fourth-quarter play)," Wilbon said. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, did he really just do that?'"

Most strong-armed quarterbacks take risks, and Lee takes his share. But his poor decision-making helps explain his nine interceptions.

It seems Lee has to be reminded that it's sometimes OK to gun it to the sideline and punt.

"In a lot of situations, a punt is a win," he said this week.

Maybe Lee really is making genuine progress. We're about to find out, for Wisconsin's defense is "easily" the best Nebraska will have faced to date, Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.

Said Lee: "I think it's just how disciplined they are. They seem comfortable in their coverage. They seem to be responding well to their first-year defensive coordinator (34-year-old Jim Leonhard). They're playing good football, confident football."

Emphasize "confident football." Watch Wisconsin's defense — its hard-edged confidence is easily discernible.

Nebraska will need strong performances by several players — especially those who protect Lee — in order to move the ball consistently.

He was protected well against Illinois, particularly in the first half.

"I want to improve off every performance," Lee said. "I think as an offense, we did a lot of good things, did a lot of things we can build off in the future and know we can feel comfortable running those types of plays and calling those things again."

You'll feel much more confident about the future of Riley's program if the offense shows steady progress, as most good offenses tend to do during a season. After all, Riley's specialty is offense, including the development of quarterbacks.

Yes, there's pressure on Lee. But he's 22, older than some NFL rookies. Bottom line, Riley finally has his man at QB, right?

Lee can't afford to worry about such chatter. The best thing he can do is simplify — take one play at a time.

"That's something we really focused on last game, and it showed," he said. "That was really good to see."

His performance was critical — just in time for Wisconsin.

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