LINCOLN — This was a much different season debut for Caleb Lightbourn.
Now a sophomore, the punter knew what to expect against college-football pressure. This was a long way from the wide-eyed newcomer thrust into action following the death of Sam Foltz last year.
Lightbourn saved perhaps his best kicks for the second half, pinning Arkansas State on its own 4 and 10 at different points while directing the ball better and more consistently than in 2016. He also uncorked a 54-yard kick to flip the field on the visitors.
“There’s no better feeling,” Lightbourn said. “Once you see it, you see your guys are just down there waiting for it, it’s a good feeling. I was really glad that I got those out of the way because that’s something that I struggled with last year and I definitely was working really hard on in fall camp and in prep for this game. I’m just really glad they went exactly where I wanted them to.”
Big return for Spielman
Return touchdowns are hard to come by, both for Nebraska and against Nebraska.
Both happened on Saturday. Arkansas State’s return for 63 yards for a touchdown was the first return touchdown against NU since 2001.
And redshirt freshman JD Spielman’s 99-yard kickoff return in the first quarter was Nebraska’s first return since Kenny Bell’s return against Penn State in 2013.
Not applying enough pressure
Nebraska struggled to get a pass rush from its front seven through the game. NU notched just one sack, even though Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen dropped back to pass at least 70 times.
Coach Mike Riley, speaking for the defense in part because defensive coordinator Bob Diaco did not chat with the media, said he wasn’t entirely sure if NU got enough pressure on Hansen, but his answer leaned toward no.
“You’ve got to make some really hard judgments about when and if you should blitz,” Riley said.
The coach was referring to the glut of short bubble and tunnel screens thrown by Hansen, which were often thrown so quickly that a pass rush didn’t have time to get home. At times, NU only rushed three defenders at Hansen, who consistently found open receivers in Nebraska’s zone defense.
Big plays from Red Wolves
There were a handful of ways Arkansas State players said they could have given themselves a better chance to upset Nebraska Saturday night. Crisper tackling, avoiding turnovers, catching a few more passes.
But two players made big plays early that helped continue to give Arkansas State early in the game.
Senior cornerback Blaise Taylor returned a punt 63 yards for the Red Wolves’ first touchdown after initially mishandling the kick.
Back Chris Murray caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hansen for Arkansas State’s first touchdown from scrimmage.
Taylor downplayed the moves he made through Nebraska’s defense and the tackles he broke en route to the Nebraska end zone.
“It was just a normal punt return,” Taylor said. “I had to pick it up and make a play. I think we had a good game plan and we were prepared for what they were going to do.”
Murray was the leading receiver for a busy Red Wolves receiving corps, catching nine of Hansen’s school-record 46 completed passes for 90 yards. Nine players caught passes from Hansen.
Onside kicks give NU fits
Nebraska’s two attempts at recovering onside kicks weren’t particularly successful.
On the first kick, a dribbler right at NU’s defense, the Huskers eventually recovered but only after the ball rolled around several times. Luke McNitt finally grabbed it.
The second onside kick was a perfect pop-up over the head of 5-foot-9 wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, who couldn’t reach the ball. Arkansas State receiver Chris Murray recovered.
“I’ll have to look at that, see what kind of holes there were,” Riley said of the second onside kick. “Our guy, I don’t think he mistimed it, I think it just bounced over his head. But, before I say anything about the mistakes that we made on it, I’d have to see it.”