Four hours. Defense causing a safety and giving up a safety. A perfectly executed onside kick. 57 first downs. Nearly a 1000 yards of total offense. Breathtaking catches from both teams. A spectacular punt return for a TD followed immediately by a heartbreaking kickoff return for a touchdown. And then one moment forever frozen in time.
With :02 remaining on the clock, Justice Hansen took the snap from center on the Nebraska 11 yard line and rolled to his right looking over his options in the end zone. The only option that appeared viable was the newcomer, Kendrick Edwards, who had already doubled his career stats in one night with 8 catches for 100 yards and a TD. The 6-5 Edwards had worked his way across the back of the end zone and then the toss from Hansen as 90,000+ held their breath, and just like that, the pass thrown where only Edwards could get it floated too high from his grasp. There would be no circus catch and no stunning finish to the 2017 opener, Nebraska had found a way to hold off ASU 43-36.
Justice Hansen led a passing onslaught Saturday night in Lincoln as Arkansas State nearly pulled the biggest upset in school history, eventually falling to BIG10 member Nebraska. Hansen went 46-68 for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, setting a school mark for most completions in a game while also tying the record for most pass attempts by an opponent for the ‘Huskers. One of the biggest question marks coming into the game was the offensive line and how it would perform the first time together as a unit. With almost all the focus on the passing game, the O-line would only give up one sack and that from Nebraska LB Dedrick Young II. The ‘Husker defensive line was kept at bay most of the night allowing Hansen to throw to 9 different receivers with 5 of them having at least 5 catches each. Hansen looked very cool and collected most times, with only one of his two pics coming from forcing the ball into coverage. It is also obvious that Kendrick Edwards will be a huge asset going forward. He finished the night with 8 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown showing great hands and athleticism. As the game developed, it became clear that the staff felt more comfortable moving the ball downfield using the outside bubble screen as a weapon in place of the rushing game. Warren Wand only got 12 of the 16 touches out of the backfield on the night for 69 yards but finished with 5.8 ypc.
Although the defensive line created pressure and got a good push against Nebraska's front in the passing game, it only tallied one sack, by Caleb Caston, and 2 hurries on the night. Ja’Von Rolland-Jones was held to 2 tackles and no sacks as the ‘Huskers constantly slid a second lineman over to cover him up in the pass rush. Most of Nebraska's rushing success came from sophomore Tre Bryant (31 att- 192 yds) working outside the tackles. Kyle Wilson finished as the leading tackler with 10 stops on the night and unfortunately the next 4 on the tackles list all come from the secondary. The defense also did not create a turnover on the night and will need to improve on that with more consistent pressure upfront. The secondary gave up 238 yards passing but with only a 7.4 avg per completion, as two long passes of 44 and 35 yards accounted for a third of that total.
The kicking game was a mash of agony and ecstasy. Blaise Taylor sparked the Red Wolves with a 63 yard punt return in the first quarter to give ASU a 7-3 lead only to see Nebraska's J.D. Spielman take the ensuing kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown to reclaim the lead. Sawyer Williams looked solid as he finished the night 2 for 2 on FG attempts and perfect on 4 extra point attempts. Punter Cody Grace shook off an early shank to bounce back with a solid night including a 55 yard punt that flipped the field.
This will be a game talked about for years to come with most of the discussion coming on the officiating and the barely missed catches that could have swung the game ASU’s way. In the end, the takeaway should be that this team has a lot of potential, should be VERY competitive in the conference, and the return of Blake Anderson in the play calling process is a plus. The squad and staff should use this as a springboard for going forward not looking back and seeing what they can be in 2017, which is a very special team.
The Miami Hurricanes come to Jonesboro next Saturday 9/9 for a 2:30 kickoff that will be aired on ESPNU. They will be the highest ranked team to ever visit ASU.