Lincoln – The Blackshirts forced five South Alabama turnovers and the Cornhuskers scored three non-offensive touchdowns in the second half, as the No. 24 Nebraska football team worked its way to a 35-21 season-opening win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Playing in front of the NCAA-record 369th consecutive sellout of nearly 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium and an ESPN national television audience, Nebraska got a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown from Eric Lee Jr. on the first drive of the second half. The Huskers also got a fumble return for a touchdown by Alex Davis on forced fumble by Cam Taylor on the first play of the fourth quarter to lead a bevy of big plays by the Blackshirt defense.
In between the two scores by the defense, the Huskers got a 76-yard punt return touchdown from junior JD Spielman to give the Big Red three non-offensive scores in a span of 15:07 to start the second half. Lee added his second career interception in the fourth quarter, while Lamar Jackson caused a first-quarter fumble for the Blackshirts.
The strong performance by the defense allowed the Huskers to overcome a less than spectacular effort by the offense in the second half. The Huskers ran only 17 offensive plays in the second half for just 66 total yards, and South Alabama was able to cash in a pair of Husker turnovers for 14 points in the half.
In the game, Nebraska managed just 276 total yards, including just 66 in the second half. South Alabama produced 314 total yards on 79 plays, including 222 yards on 47 plays after halftime.
Husker sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez completed 13-of-22 passes for 178 yards on the day, hitting 2-of-3 passes for 19 yards in the second half. Tight end Jack Stoll led the receiving corps with 66 yards on three receptions, while true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson added three receptions for 33 yards and Spielman pitched in a pair of catches for 36 yards.
Junior running back Dedrick Mills led the Huskers with 15 carries for 44 yards for the game. Sophomore running back Maurice Washington added 39 yards on six carries – all in the second half – while Robinson contributed four carries for 21 yards. As a team, the Huskers managed 98 rushing yards on 44 carries.
Quarterback Cephus Johnson completed 19-of-34 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns for South Alabama, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. Johnson rushed 18 times for nine yards and a touchdown. Tra Minter led the South Alabama ground game with 37 yards on 10 carries, but the Jaguars managed just 83 rushing yards on 44 carries against a stout Blackshirt defense. Minter added five receptions for 47 yards, while Kawaan Baker pitched in 59 yards on four catches and Cade Sutherland contributed four catches for 53 yards.
In a first half that was primarily controlled by the defenses, Nebraska managed 210 yards of total offense, while holding South Alabama to 92 total yards. Martinez completed 11-of-19 passes for 159 yards in the half, but the Huskers struggled to get rolling on the ground, producing just 51 yards on 30 carries. Mills led the Husker ground game with 31 yards on 14 carries, including a pair of short touchdown runs that staked Nebraska to a 14-7 halftime lead.
Lee made the Nebraska defense’s biggest play of the game on the first drive of the second half, when he bolted to a Johnson pass toward the South Alabama sideline and intercepted it on his way to a 38-yard touchdown return. Lee’s first career interception gave the Big Red a 21-7 lead with 13:11 left in the third quarter.
Lee’s big defensive play, preceded a huge special teams play by Spielman less than two minutes later, when Spielman raced 76 yards down the South Alabama sideline for his second career punt return touchdown. Spielman, who initially bobbled the 49-yard punt by South Alabama’s Jack Brooks, secured the ball in the middle of the field and made a pair of Jaguars miss before breaking outside for the score to give Nebraska a 28-7 lead with 11:32 left in the quarter.
After the Blackshirts notched their third consecutive stop to open the second half, a high, wobbly punt was fumbled by Spielman at the 29 and recovered by South Alabama at the Nebraska 13 with 8:11 left in the quarter. The Jaguars capitalized three plays later on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Davyn Flenord to cut Nebraska’s lead to 28-14 with 6:47 left.
Nebraska’s offense finally ran its first play of the second half with 6:47 left in the quarter, and quickly marched into South Alabama territory, before Martinez threw his first interception of the season to end the possession. The Jaguars turned the Huskers’ second straight turnover into points with a 13-yard Johnson touchdown pass to Khameron Taylor to cut Nebraska’s lead back to 28-21.
South Alabama opened the fourth quarter with the ball and momentum trailing by just one score, but Cam Taylor hit Johnson from the backside and forced a fumble that was recovered by Alex Davis in the end zone to give Nebraska a 35-21 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter. That play gave Nebraska a two-score lead, and the Blackshirts made it hold up by shutting out the Jaguars the rest of the way.
Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry led the Blackshirts with 12 tackles, while Taylor added five tackles, including two tackles for 16 yards lost. He also hauled in his first career interception and returned it 48 yards in the second half. Lee pitched in four tackles and the first two interceptions of his career while adding a breakup. As a team, the Blackshirts produced 10 tackles for 49 yards lost, including four sacks for 32 yards.
Nebraska returns to action next weekend for its first road game at former conference rival Colorado. Kickoff between the Big Red and the Buffaloes in Boulder is set for 2:30 p.m. (CT) on FOX.