LINCOLN — Sophomore linebacker Luke Gifford did eventually come to understand the officials’ rationale for a targeting call that got him ejected Saturday. It took a day, though.
Gifford watched several replays of the hit — when his helmet appeared to make contact above the shoulders on Fresno State’s Chason Virgil, even though Gifford was simply trying to shove the quarterback to the turf just after the pass was released.
Gifford was frustrated by the decision. Particularly in the moment. He’s seen other hits, perhaps more malicious in intent and certainly more violent, go unpunished. He saw a few while watching college football over the weekend.
But ultimately, by Sunday, Gifford had to accept it. He made it a point to see where the officials were coming from.
“I tried to extend with my hands — and just kind of check him,” Gifford said. “But you could tell in one angle that my head did follow. It was just my momentum. It’s just the way it is, I guess.”
It’s a harsh consequence to learn a lesson Gifford already knew: Don’t hit a quarterback above the shoulders.
Senior linebacker Josh Banderas said it’s a reminder for everyone.
“They’re going to call it no matter what, but we’ve got to adjust and lower our target zone,” Banderas said.
It’s just difficult because they weren’t exactly taught to tackle in this manner when they first started playing football, according to Banderas. He does think Nebraska’s new rugby-style tackling techniques will help — but it’s still difficult to react in the moment. You just have to play, without concern that a targeting flag is coming, Banderas said.
Gifford knows that. He’ll be back on the field this week. He’s handled it well, according to Banderas. The team made sure to keep his spirits up.
“We gave him a hard time,” Banderas said. “He said, ‘I finally get a good hit and they kick me out.’ He’s fine with it. He’ll learn from it.”
Jackson’s first taste of action
Freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson sat at his locker after Nebraska’s 43-10 win over Fresno State going through all the messages on his phone. His mom was proud. Lots of friends watched the game, too. He took a moment for himself to let the first experience of college football sink in.
“My first college game. 90,000 (fans), I was enjoying it,” Jackson told a group of reporters Tuesday. It was his first interview as a current Husker.
Jackson, from Elk Grove, California, was the highest-rated recruit in Nebraska’s 2016 class. He was picked on plenty by Fresno State’s offense, which threw at him 11 times, but Jackson finished with six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. He also gained valuable experience on trusting the defense and being smart with what he’s seeing on the field.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Jackson talks fast and confidently. And when asked for specifics on his play, Jackson rattled them off with more poise than most freshmen. He remembered Fresno State’s lone touchdown, thrown right over his head.
“I had bad eyes,” Jackson said. “That was the first thing. I see a guy motion across and I thought I was going to meet him at the goal line on my side, but they faked it and threw it to my guy and I got scored on.”
It was impressive immediate recall from Jackson, and pointed to praise that senior safety Nate Gerry had for him.
“I really don’t see him as much of a true freshman anymore because of the ‘level two’ he has in his brain and stuff like that,” Gerry said, referring to Jackson’s advanced grasp of the college game.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Jackson gained some knowledge by working through some of tough moments in the opener. Banker also sees a player who can rebound easily from mistakes.
“What’s important for the freshman in the secondary is you can learn by fire but, at the same time, you want to make sure they always have confidence,” Banker said. “Even veteran corners, if they lose their stinger, it’s not a good thing. And that’s not him at all. He’s a very confident young man.”
After the game, Jackson said he got back to his dorm room and replayed the game in his mind.
“And I started thinking, ‘Dang, I should have made that play, I should have made that play,’ ” Jackson said. “But, like I said, it’s a whole ’nother week. It’s going to move fast. I can’t harp on the past.”
Speaking of the past, did Jackson notice how one of his other finalists in the recruiting process, USC, fared in its opener?
“Oh yeah, they got torched,” Jackson said of USC’s 52-6 loss to Alabama. “That’s what was supposed to happen. They tried, but I’m here. I don’t care about USC.”
More playing time for Natter
Junior defensive end A.J. Natter has battled injuries and self-confidence issues for most of his Husker career, but he had his most extensive action in Saturday’s opener as a backup defensive end. Natter finished with a tackle and nearly had a sack, although it was instead credited to senior Ross Dzuris.
“I told him Ross pushed him out of the way,” defensive line coach John Parrella quipped. “He went in and did a good job.”
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Natter said Tuesday that he’s pleased with his progress but “not content.”
“My goal was to play — and is to play,” Natter said. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team, whether that be when someone’s tired or whatnot. But I’m going to give my all when I’m in there.”
Natter said the defensive line aims to go “100 miles per hour” on every play. Parrella said the line tried hard on Saturday night, but also “ran out of gas.”
“They were flooring it and the check engine light came on a few times,” Parrella said. “But they played their hearts out. I’m happy with ’em. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. The biggest thing is consistency. Can’t have a great play and then a bad play.”
Coaches like defensive effort
Nebraska coach Mike Riley has said he was impressed with how the defense ran to the football against Fresno State, and Banker said Tuesday that the film backed that up.
In grading, Banker said Husker defensive players get an “L” and lose points for a “loaf.” He thought the staff only assigned three of those after the 43-10 win.
“That’s 11 players on the field with like 70 plays,” he said. “So that’s pretty good.”
Banker said he hopes Husker defenders are now “conditioned mentally” to chasing the football as this staff starts its second season in Lincoln. He said even before players learn the system, they can give that effort.
“And effort is pursuit and getting to the ball,” he said. “If you can’t run — and you don’t run — to the ball on every play, then you can’t play for us. We’ll replace guys.”
Dzuris called that effort against the Bulldogs energizing.
“When you’re getting seven, eight guys to the ball, that’s why our run defense was so good,” Dzuris said. “Even if we had a couple missed assignments or so, you can make up for that with everybody flowing to the ball.”
Cowboys impress Banker
Banker said quarterback Josh Allen and tailback Brian Hill have caught his attention in studying Wyoming.
The 6-foot-5, 222-pound Allen completed 19 of 29 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns against Northern Illinois and had the winning run in triple overtime. Banker said he looks polished for a sophomore with just two career starts.
“He has got a gun for an arm,” Banker said. “He was very, very impressive. He’s really good when he rolls out to his right.”
Banker said Hill has got “a heart of a lion.” The junior had 125 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries Saturday night.
“I mean, he runs hard, he pushes the pile,” Banker said. “He’s got great balance, great toughness. He does not go down.”