Special teams play was front and center during the Nebraska vs. Arkansas State game on Saturday, Sept. 2. While typically the least talked about facet of the football game, the third branch of the football teams provided excitement for fans in Memorial Stadium.
The first sign of special teams play was Arkansas State punter Cody Grace shanking a punt out of bounds. The miskick gave Nebraska the ball at the 38-yard line. That drive, Drew Brown kicked his 48th career field goal to put the first points on the board during Nebraska’s first offensive possession.
After that, things got exciting. Arkansas State cornerback Blaise Taylor mishandled a 54-yard punt by Nebraska’s Caleb Lightbourn. Taylor attempted to catch the ball over his shoulder and dropped it. Taylor recovered the ball at the Arkansas State 37-yard line and showed the crowd of 90,000 people at Memorial Stadium why he is heralded as the fastest man in the Sun Belt Conference. After picking up the ball, Taylor made one cut and outran the rest of Nebraska’s punt coverage team on his way to a 63-yard touchdown return to make the score 7-3 in favor of Arkansas State.
Had nothing else happened, that would have been a weird day for the special teams units. However, things were just getting started.
On the following kickoff, JD Spielman got his first touch as a Husker at the 1-yard line and returned Sawyer Williams’ kick 99 yards for a touchdown to put Nebraska back in front by three.
During the first quarter, Nebraska kicker Drew Brown took the field six times: three kickoffs, two extra points and a field goal.
Things didn’t calm down in the second quarter. After a diving interception by Tyrin Ferguson, the Huskers’ offense took over at their own 1-yard line and running back Tre Bryant was tackled in the end zone on the next play for a safety. The play brought Lightbourn out to punt from the 20-yard line. A booming kick sent the ball to the Arkansas State 20, but a good return took the ball past the 30.
Last year, Lightbourn was forced into the starting lineup after Sam Foltz was killed in a car accident in the 2016 offseason.
During his freshman season, Lightbourn was plagued by inconsistency. Touted as having a strong leg, he showed it off at times, but also shanked multiple punts, including a 5-yard punt at Iowa. He also had a punt roll backwards for -2 yards against Minnesota.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco worked with Lightbourn in the offseason after head coach Mike Riley fired Bruce Read after the Iowa game last year. Read was Riley’s long-time special teams coordinator.
After one game, Diaco’s instruction and Lightbourn’s work appear to have paid off. Lightbourn averaged a solid, if unspectacular, 42 yards on his five punts and twice pinned Arkansas State’s offense inside their 5-yard line with assistance from Marquel Dismuke.
The special teams didn’t step out of the spotlight, even as the game entered its waning moments. With Arkansas State trailing by 15 points, coach Blake Anderson sent out his field goal unit. This was a curious decision seeing as his team still trailed by two scores with less than 10 minutes to go, even after Williams knocked the kick through from 31 yards.
Things got crazy one last time. After the Red Wolves scored a touchdown with 47 seconds left to make their deficit 7 points, they lined up for an onside kick. Mike Riley called a timeout after seeing the alignment and wanted to put his “hands team” in the correct position to secure the ball, and likely the win.
It wouldn’t matter. Williams put perfect touch on the ball, causing it to bounce over a leaping De’Mornay Pierson-El and into the arms of Arkansas State’s Chris Murray, giving Arkansas State a final chance.
Arkansas State drove all the way down to the Nebraska 11-yard line before two incomplete passes ended the game — and the special teams excitement.
Saturday’s game gave some fans more special teams play in 60 minutes than some fans have seen in their lives. Both kickers scored double-digit points, there was both a kick and a punt returned for a touchdown, a safety by both teams, a shanked punt, and two punts downed inside the 5-yard line.
College football is back and wild as ever.