LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s a stat that makes many Nebraska football fans groan: quarterback Tanner Lee’s interceptions.
Yes, it’s painful to watch. After Lee’s fourth game at the helm of Nebraska football, the quarterback has thrown 9 interceptions. Three of those interceptions have been returned for touchdowns in the last two games alone.
After Lee’s second interception against Rutgers, fans wanted a change. Even former Huskers weighed in, suggesting backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien should get a chance to play a series or two.
Let’s put in Patrick O’Brien in and just see what he can do for a series or two. It’ll also give Tanner Lee some time to gather himself.
— Adam Carriker (@AdamCarriker94) September 23, 2017
Yet, Lee remained in the game. His first drive after the post-interception was met with boos from the crowd. It didn’t seem to phase him too much. While that drive ended in a three-and-out series, the Huskers’ next chance on the field was much more successful. In fact, it was a 17-play drive that went 97 yards for a touchdown and took just more than 8 minutes.
Some still questioned why O’Brien didn’t get a shot. Afterward, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf addressed it.
Long story short, Langsdorf doesn’t believe O’Brien has shown what he has needed to in practice to warrant playing over Lee. On top of it, Langsdorf sees a clear difference between his No. 1 quarterback and his No. 2.
Coach Mike Riley feels the same. When asked postgame if O’Brien was ever an option, he also said no.
“Just by the fact that this is a three-point game, [Lee has] played so much more, and we had a lot of faith that he would bring it back and he did,” Riley said. “He made some real good throws after that. It had nothing to do with how we feel about Patrick [O’Brien] either. [Lee] has been in the games and he sucked it up and made some throws.”
If Lee is the guy, though, there are problems that have to be addressed. Those interceptions? They’re the big one.
Without watching film, Langsdorf knows Lee struggled to get into an immediate rhythm against Rutgers.
“He needs to feel comfortable with those completions that he’s found and then go from there,” Langsdorf said. “We want to be able to push the ball down the field, want to hit it short, got to have that vertical and that horizontal passing game and we’re kind of sporadic there. I think getting him in those rhythms is big.”
Langsdorf also took the blame for the third-and-long situations. He has seen Lee try and force plays in those moments, so he hopes to help put in him less risky situations going forward.
One of those risky situations was early in the third quarter. Lee dropped back for a pass, except it didn’t end up in the hands of a Huskers receiver. It instead went right into the hands of Rutgers safety Kiy Hester, who returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.
That was another third-and-long situation for Nebraska. For whatever reason, third-and-long now is the Huskers’ kryptonite. In this scenario, it was specifically third-and-11 from the Nebraska 23-yard line.
So, what happened? Langsdorf broke it down.
“He’s got a good coverage for it. I don’t think he saw a safety spin,” Langsdorf said. “He told me on the headphones that the guy that picked him off, he didn’t see him. It’s kind of a deal where we’ve got to be able to see the rotation of the coverage a little better, and they had a quarters look that spun out of it and he didn’t see it. The guy buzzed him and picked it off.
“Those are bang-bang plays. There [is] some information to gather pre-snap and then at the post-snap is critical too.”
And how do you fix it?
“You get forced into those long-yardage situations and you get forced to catch and run for it or push it for a first down,” Langsdorf said. “It’s a play in the game that we’ve got to be able to execute or check it down and catch it underneath and run it.”
After Lee’s second interception, he went 7 for 12 for 58 yards and a touchdown. Not factoring in Nebraska’s victory formation kneel downs, the Huskers also ran the ball 27 times for 127 yards after that pick-6. That was a step in the right direction.
However, Lee’s season stats are still underwhelming. He currently has a 52.1 completion percentage and averages 224.5 passing yards per game. He also only has 7 touchdown passes to his 9 interceptions.
It’s stats like those that have fans — and even former players — calling for a change. If you’re one of those people, don’t hold your breath too long. From everything Riley and Langsdorf have said to date, they’re hedging their bets on Lee.
Yes, even if that makes you groan.