LINCOLN — Nebraska's performance in its 43-36 win against Arkansas State in Lincoln on Saturday can best be summed up like this: There was good, bad and ugly.
Good: Tanner Lee and Tre Bryant
Bad: NU's pass rush
Ugly: Nebraska's 3-4 defense
If you're going to get in a shootout in college football, Tanner Lee is probably a good guy to have at quarterback. The kid can flat out play.
I remember not all that long ago when a young Fresno State quarterback came to Lincoln and put up an eye-popping performance and single-handedly made it a game when no one thought it would be.
Derek Carr was a ready-made, sure-fire NFL quarterback even as a sophomore. He moved well in and out of the pocket, kept plays alive long enough to find open receivers, delivered the ball with precision accuracy and Nebraska had no answer for him — was all about just hanging on tight for the ride.
Arkansas State threw a couple of strong punches early on — a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 29-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-10 lead.
Lee's first pass as a Husker was less-than memorable — rolling to his right he threw across his body into coverage — could have been bad if not for a case of the dropsies by the Arkansas State defensive back.
In a later drive, Lee took a sack inside the Nebraska 10, then after that the lights came on.
Lee let it fly for Stanley Morgan Jr. on a 44-yard touchdown strike to give Nebraska a 17-14 lead with 1:40 to play in the first quarter. Trying to hold back on hyperbole and hype, but Lee made it look effortless — a real thing of beauty.
All the skills are there — big arm, poise, accuracy, ability to find the open man, you name it. It's hard to picture Lee throwing for 300 yards every game this season simply because Mike Riley has emphasized the need to run and take care of the ball.
Nebraska did just that Saturday — zero turnovers.
So as tempting as it may be to throw 40 times, it doesn't lend itself to winning conference championships.
On the bright side Nebraska found a resounding answer as to who will carry the load at I back — sophomore Tre Bryant was brilliant, with 192 yards rushing on 31 carries. This offense will be fine.
As entertaining as Lee was to watch, the Nebraska defense wasn't.
Let's be frank, the much-anticipated switch to the 3-4 was met with a big thud of reality.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's post-game reaction says it all: He walked past reporters, said "I'm sorry," and hit the elevator.
What do you say after your defense gives up 415 yards passing and three touchdowns from Justice Hansen, and is hanging on for dear life at the end of the game when it probably shouldn't have been that way.
Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley was less inclined to point the finger at his defense and more directly at the "buzz saw" it ran into with the Red Wolves' offense.
"I really like where our defense is at," Riley said. "I'm glad we won the game. I give a lot of credit to Arkansas State. Frankly, we're just glad we won."
I like all the looks Diaco's scheme can give opposing offenses, but this unit has two glaring weaknesses from this laymen's perspective.
You can change up defenses all you want, but without a pass rush it won't matter much.
There just aren't a lot of speed rushers on this roster.
It's the same lack of pass rush Nebraska's 4-3 had during the past several seasons, that can only be fixed in recruiting.
Sure, it's only one game in a long season ahead, but I'm going to make a prediction: Future opponents will watch tape on the Arkansas State offense and boldly throw the ball all over the field against NU.
The lack of pass rush is compounded by youth in the Nebraska secondary that was glaring.
Arkansas State is no slouch, but I think it's fair to have expected better from this defense.
Arkansas State spent much of the game throwing quick passes to the sideline, screens and the like, putting the NU corners in a lot of one-on-one situations.
For most of the game, Nebraska played its corners off receivers, essentially playing to avoid the big play, but, in reality, opening up the middle of the field to crossing routes.
Maybe part of the answer will come from Nebraska's linebacker corps. In the second half we saw the backers play more aggressively, recording NU's first sack of the game near the end of the third quarter.
Still, you hate to see Nebraska's linebackers carry the load.
It is distinctly possible I'm being a bit too harsh on the Blackshirts — perhaps — but this change in philosophy brings back nightmares of the switch to the West Coast offense.
Yeah, didn't think it was possible to take players from an option offense and expect Joe Montana results.
Same goes for this defense. You have to expect a bit of a transition time to find the right talent fit for the system.
I suspect that's what we're seeing with the 3-4 — it's all about making the right adjustments.
The question is, can it be done with this group of players this season?