LINCOLN -- The conversation about Nebraska’s quarterback play on Monday at Memorial Stadium boiled down to decisions.
Decisions, made by junior Tanner Lee on the field that are part of the reason he’s thrown a Football Bowl Subdivision-high nine interceptions through the Huskers' first four games.
Decisions, made and reiterated clearly by head coach Mike Riley, that Lee was, is and will in all likelihood continue to be the team’s best chance to win games.
“Both (Lee’s) experience and his ability and, I think, his ability also to learn, he is our best opportunity to play well,” Riley said Monday. “We’ve got to do our part with him and the coaching and the development all around him so he can really utilized his abilities that way. We, however, like to keep the door open for competition as it goes.”
After Rutgers drove the length of the field to open Saturday’s game with a touchdown, its only other 10 points came following Lee’s two interceptions.
All nine of his turnovers have come over the past three games, including three returned for touchdowns.
“I need to stop hurting the team with turnovers,” Lee said Monday. “It’s something I’m well aware of and I’m continuing to work hard on that. As we get into Illinois, I’ll continue to study hard, continue to find ways to make plays and get us in the right plays and put the ball in our playmakers’ hands.”
At least two of Lee’s interceptions this year have come when he was either hit hard as he threw or had his arm hit.
He was pressured on his first turnover against the Scarlet Knights, but bad decisions led to both interceptions.
The first one, which came on third-and-3 from NU’s 20, was an underthrown ball into double coverage downfield looking for freshman Tyjon Lindsey. Rutgers got moderate pressure with four rushers, and each of the three receivers — Tyler Hoppes, JD Spielman and Lindsey — bunched to the field side, where Lee was reading, were doubled.
Gabe Rahn had single coverage to the backside, though the Big Ten Network broadcast doesn’t show his route.
“The other thing is don’t make a bad play worse,” Riley said. “They jumped into a coverage on him that surprised him and then that ball should have been, at the worst for us, a throw-away and punt. It wasn’t good (coverage) for the route, he didn’t really have time to step into the throw and throw it with a good trajectory. That’s the perfect, 'It's time to bail out of here and let’s punt the ball.'"
Overall, the Huskers’ protection was better against Rutgers than in the loss to Northern Illinois. It was fine on third-and-11 early in the third quarter when Lee appeared to not see safety Kiy Hester, who dropped into shallower coverage post-snap, intercepted a vertical throw and returned it for a touchdown in what Riley called, “a dramatic error,” by Lee.
“It was a vertical route that he’s thrown tremendously well since he got here and he’s thrown probably a million times probably in his life, but it was more of a condensed field,” Riley said. “The ball was in the middle, they didn’t have to expand quite as far to get to the receiver so the defender had less room to defend.
“Everybody talks about arm strength, but a lot of throwing is about the right ball with trajectory. He missed on that.”
Another fair point: Lee did not appear to have an open option on either play. At best, NU would have punted both times. But that is still far better than putting the Scarlet Knights in the end zone or in scoring position. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after the game that he’s sometimes eliminating a checkdown option in order to help protect better. Lee didn’t have a running back option on either interception.
“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul at times when you are keeping guys in to help the protection and you don’t have a checkdown as much,” Langsdorf said.
The lingering, pressing question as the Huskers prepare for Illinois, then, is how to reduce or eliminate the rate of Lee’s misses.
“Still having confidence in my arm and ability to make plays, but then know when to check it down and know when to not try to make the big play when you don’t have to,” Lee offered. “Just kind of slowing it down and not allowing those bad plays to happen.”
Said Riley, “We need to prepare him best for the choices he can make and for the defenses he’s going to see and where the ball should go. A lot of that has to do with continued work, his preparation. ‘These are the routes that fit into Illinois’ coverages. This is where, when you see it, the ball should go.’ So it’s quick decisions and then really, really good both protection and route running.”
Langsdorf stated clearly after the game that the gap between Lee and Patrick O’Brien or Tristan Gebbia is significant.
“He keeps playing, he does not get too high or too low with anything, he’s pretty steady and that showed,” Langsdorf said. … “Tanner’s doing a lot of good things for us. We’ve got a couple kids behind him that are practicing and preparing, but Tanner’s the guy and we’re staying with him.”