LINCOLN — As the football flew his direction for the first time Saturday, Nebraska freshman receiver Stanley Morgan was thinking two things.
And make the first guy miss.
Whether it’s a quick turn upfield, a stutter-step, a juke or a stiff-arm, NU’s receivers have to showcase some sort of elusiveness once they make the catch.
Morgan did both. He made the grab and turned a 5-yard curl pattern into a 14-yard gain.
Here’s how Morgan recounted his thought process as he peered back toward quarterback Tommy Armstrong: “Either catch the ball or coach Keith (Williams) is going to take me out of the game — so I had to catch the ball.
“And make somebody miss. If I don’t make the first person miss, I’m coming out of the game.”
Those are Williams’ rules, and they are essential to the operation of an offense that’s still working out some kinks in its rush attack.
Nebraska’s 33-28 loss to BYU showed that a top I-back is yet to emerge behind an offensive line still grooming four new starters.
The Huskers averaged 3.4 yards per carry against BYU and totaled 150 yards on the ground, not counting sacks. They didn’t have a run longer than 20 yards.
That is quite the shift from recent seasons. Nebraska produced 28 runs of 20-plus yards last year (18th in the country), 25 in 2013 (21st) and 35 in 2012 (sixth). NU averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year (18th).
But it’s just one game. One game in a new system with new faces. There is confidence within the locker room that this group of players, recruited to play in the old run-heavy scheme, can find a way to get more production soon.
In the meantime, receivers feel they have an opportunity to lighten the load on teammates who are still adjusting.
Bubble and tunnel screens. Curls and comebacks. Out routes, crossing routes, slant routes.
All those pass patterns can serve as an extension of the running game, provided the throws are caught and more than one defender is needed to end the play.
Said Williams: “If you make the first man miss at wide receiver, you might only need to make one more miss for a touchdown. Making one miss at wideout can potentially lead to a great play. So if you have that mindset, you’ll always be on the brink of a big play.”
That’s what NU proved Saturday. Armstrong threw one ball longer than 25 yards — an incomplete fade toss to Lane Hovey — yet he still averaged 13.3 yards per completion. Fifteen of Armstrong’s 24 completions were on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards.
“If they give us the 5-, 6-yard routes, that’s what we’re going to do,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to take those and see if we can turn them into 20-, 30-yard gains. I think that’s what we did (Saturday). ... We just want to take what the defense gives us and make the best of our opportunity.”
Morgan’s 14-yard catch-and-run helped Nebraska work out of a second-and-17 hole during one touchdown drive. Receiver Jordan Westerkamp escaped multiple tackle attempts after he caught a screen pass for the game’s first score.
The receivers know how important it is. And if they forget, their position coach will remind them with the hook. Junior receiver Alonzo Moore talked about it Tuesday.
He caught a pass 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage and ended up scoring. He had to use his left hand to push away a diving defender before escaping down the sideline for the 22-yard touchdown. Exactly what Nebraska needed him to do.
“If I would have got tackled on that little screen that I caught, I would have been out for probably about two series,” Moore said. “You cannot go down on the first guy. It’s got to take at least two or three. Or you’re coming out.”
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