A little over 36,000 fans filled up Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon, making the "citium," as head coach Scott Frost coined in the pregame hype video, Nebraska’s fifth-largest city.
It’s a far cry from the usual 90,000 fans packed within the stadium’s walls, but Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game was a step closer to what a Nebraska home game is supposed to be.
“I don’t know who needed that the most, us to have the fans in there cheering for us or the city of Lincoln,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “It’s been too long and the stadium wasn’t full but … there’s a lot of people in there.”
The White team ended up winning the contest 21-20. Freshman quarterback and early enrollee Heinrich Haarberg, from his own 35-yard line with seven seconds left, launched a 40-yard heave to sophomore wide receiver Wyatt Liewer that got to Red’s 25-yard line.
A gracious referee gave the White team’s offense an untimed down and Haarberg once again connected with Liewer for a 25-yard touchdown to the left corner of the endzone.
“We had a pretty good connection through spring ball,” Liewer said postgame. “He likes throwing those deep balls and kid’s got a cannon. He’s been throwing those on the dot all spring.”
The ending capped off a 13-point comeback by the White team after being down 13-0 at halftime.
It’s hard to gauge how well a football team performs, especially with no tackling in the first half, but the Red offense and defense, littered with starters from the 2020 season, dominated the first half.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez led the offense on three consecutive scoring drives to start the game. The Red offense could not finish the last two drives with touchdowns, instead settling for field goals to take a 13-0 lead. However, the offense moved through the air, a welcome sight following the 2020 season.
“We got some speed,” senior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt said postgame. “We couldn’t name this many receivers before…They go down to score and it feels great.”
Junior wide receiver Omar Manning made his long-awaited debut as a Husker with three catches but failed to haul in a first-half deep ball from Martinez. Manning was not the only new receiver to stand out, as senior Montana transfer Samori Toure made his debut as well.
The offense moved with relative ease, putting up 236 yards on offense in the first half with Martinez throwing for 127 yards. The Red defense shut down the White team’s offense, limiting them to 19 yards on 17 plays and zero points.
The Red team led 13-0 at halftime, but the second half provided a twist as live tackling was permitted for all non-quarterback offensive players. Both offenses spent the majority of the day on the ground and especially in the second half. All told, there were 86 carries combined for both teams, with 54 coming in the second half.
“We were really vanilla today so it was simple stuff,” Frost said.
After a first half where the White team offense could not move the ball, freshman running back Jaquez Yant capped off the opening drive of the second half with a 21-yard touchdown run. That was the White team’s first points, and Yant’s performance was an impressive display of the Huskers’ depth at the running back position.
Yant finished with nine carries for 63 yards, the most on the White team while fellow freshmen running backs Isaiah Harris and Sevion Morrison took snaps in the second half. Nebraska was trying out as many running backs as it could throughout the second half.
“We do have about seven guys that I could hand the ball off to,” Martinez said postgame. “I’m confident in each of those seven guys and I know coach Held will get them right.”
In the third quarter alone, both teams combined for 31 carries and passed just eight times. The running backs stole the offensive show after the Red offense cooled off following its hot start to the game.
Another freshman running back, Isaiah Harris, came to spell Yant, running in for a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Harris’s score and the subsequent extra point handed the White team a 14-13 lead, its first of the game.
On the Red team, freshmen running backs Marvin Scott III and Gabe Ervin Jr. took some carries in the third quarter but the second-string offense couldn’t generate many scoring opportunities. While the White offense had Haarberg, freshman quarterback Logan Smothers led the second-half Red offense.
Smothers came in for sophomore quarterback Matt Masker for the Red team in the third quarter and struggled. That changed in the fourth quarter as Smothers found some composure and led two fourth-quarter drives close to striking distance.
The first fell flat after a failed fourth-down conversion at the White team’s 9-yard line but the Red offense drove right down again. Smothers hit sophomore wide receiver Brody Belt for a 23-yard touchdown on another fourth down to retake the lead at 20-14 with 6:26 to play.
Haarberg ultimately got the better of the Red team when it mattered most to take home the victory, ending spring practices and the first chapter of the 2021 Husker football season.
“We definitely made some progress this spring and we can’t lose it,” Martinez said. “There’s a group of us that will hop on and push this thing forward and we feel really good about that.”