StanleyMorgan

Nebraska wide receivers dropped four passes in the loss to Northern Illinois.

Kollin Miller, The Columbus Telegram

LINCOLN -- Tanner Lee got knocked around like a piñata, and the guys he was throwing to had trouble hanging on to the ball in some of the game's biggest moments.

Now, a week after Nebraska's loss to Northern Illinois, Rutgers comes to town with a defense dead-set on making that crew win the game for the Huskers.

Against the Rutgers defense, Washington's high-powered offense managed just 84 yards on 24 carries in the season-opener. Eastern Michigan got to 114 yards, but needed 35 carries to do it. Morgan State finished with 80 on 37 carries.

OK, so those last two aren't exactly scorched-earth rushing attacks. But you get the idea.

Nebraska will need to make hay through the air.

Certainly, the Huskers saddled themselves with poor pass protection against Northern Illinois. But four dropped passes — every one seemingly in a big moment — hurt plenty.

The wideouts know they will have to be better in the Big Ten opener.

"It's not contagious. It's just a lack of execution by the individual at that particular time," NU receivers coach Keith Williams said Monday of the drops. "What happens is, if three guys drop one. … The individual says, 'That's my mistake.' But collectively that's too many. Even one is too many. It's a bad deal, it's coaching, and I've got to get them ready."

Part of Williams' job may involve teaching some patience. As NIU played from ahead, Nebraska's mistakes seemed to compound themselves in the form of missed assignments, mental lapses, and yes, dropped passes.

"I think we knew we could move the ball, and we just wanted to hurry up and do it and start scoring," Lee said after the loss. "I do think we were pressing a little bit, and we were making mistakes and doing uncharacteristic things that we pride ourselves in not doing."

And while it's no surprise who has gotten the majority of Lee's attention over the past two games, it would perhaps behoove NU to find a way to get more receivers involved, as well.

According to research from the Journal Star's Parker Gabriel, Stanley Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El have been the targets on 48 of Tanner Lee's last 88 pass attempts.

Morgan was held out of practice Monday, and while it doesn't appear to be anything serious, even a slightly slowed No. 1 target could be a concern for NU's passing attack.

"It's a concern just in terms of, you want everybody healthy regardless of what the situation is," Williams said. "But other than that, everybody who goes out there is prepared to play every day and play at their best, and that's all you can ask."

After Morgan's 30 total targets the past two games and Pierson-El's 18, the next most-targeted receiver is JD Spielman with 10. After that it's true freshman Tyjon Lindsey with six and former walk-on Bryan Reimers with four.

"I got a ton of reps with (NU's younger receivers), whether it was last year or in fall camp," Lee said. "It hasn't been too bad. I feel comfortable whether it's Gabe (Rahn) or Reimers or anybody. It's not really too big of a difference."

On the other hand, NU could get some help in the depth department. Junior slot receiver Keyan Williams is inching closer to full health, and could see his first action Saturday.

Frustrating would be an apt description for the time Williams has missed, at least according to his father.

"Unfortunately, I think it might be inherited. My hamstrings are like guitar strings," Keith Williams said. "You just say, 'Son, I apologize.'"

No matter who does or doesn't line up Saturday, the wideouts and the quarterback throwing to them will need to be sharp.

"I think we have played some good defenses, and our guys are handling it well," Lee said. "I've just got to get them the ball more often and quicker, and we will get better at that."

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