Lee leads balanced Nebraska offense against Missouri

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee is bracing for a long afternoon in front of the television set Thursday afternoon.

The late-evening kickoff later that day will mean that the Cornhuskers will lounge around the team hotel as they prepare for Missouri in a pivotal North Division opener for both teams.

But Lee says he’s willing to try anything, even soap operas and the "Oprah Winfrey Show," to take his mind off the pressure he expects later that night.

“I don’t know because I’ve never really done it before,” Lee said. “Usually you’re in a hotel room and there’s football or something like that. I don’t know what’s on daytime Thursday TV. I’m sure we’ll keep ourselves occupied.”

The Cornhuskers are hoping to turn around their recent misfortune against Nebraska in the last two seasons. And a big reason is because of the early development of Lee, a junior who is in his first year as a starter.

Lee has produced three strong starts in victories over FAU, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, passing for at least 213 yards in each of those games and averaging a 76 percent completion rate. Those triumphs have provided the Cornhuskers with at least the claim of the mythical Sun Belt Conference championship after the first month of the season.

He wasn’t quite as fortunate at Virginia Tech, where he struggled through a disappointing 16-15 loss that marks the Cornhuskers’ only blemish this season. Lee completed only 11 of 30 passes for 136 yards in a game where he failed to produce a touchdown and the Cornhuskers relied on five field goals from Alex Henery that weren’t enough to win.

Lee views those hose struggles as learning experiences as he prepares for Missouri’s hostile crowd and the Tigers’ speedy defense in his first Big 12 road test as a starter.

“You take what you learn from it and move on,” Lee said. “You have to look at it that way and make sure you’re focused just like any other game and keep going with it. Some bad things may happen at some point and you know you have to move on from that as quickly as possible and just refocus yourself.”

Lee rebounded from his performance against Virginia Tech to pass for 238 yards on 15-of-18 passing against Louisiana-Lafayette in his most recent game.

“Zac is going into his fifth start,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “He’s better because of the experience he had at Virginia Tech. He’s learned from it. He’s a good football player and he’ll continue to be a good football player.”

Nebraska coaches are careful to say that Lee won't be asked to beat the Tigers by himself.

“All we ever ask Zac to do is manage our offense,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “Be efficient like he was this last game. I just want to see him continue to grow.”

His job should be made easier by the development of Roy Helu Jr., the conference’s leading rusher and Nebraska’s most consistent offensive threat. Helu has averaged 116 yards rushing to rank tied for sixth nationally.

That rushing game is bolstered by a passing attack that ranks 33rd nationally. It enables them to become one of only seven teamsto rank among the top 40 teams nationally in the four major statistical categories -- rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.

The Cornhuskers are averaging 440 yards per game, but will be challenged by a speedy, athletic Missouri defense that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in any game this season.

“It might seem vague to the untrained eye, because it seems like we don’t really do any particular thing for one game,” center Jacob Hickman said. “One game it will be the pass and the next game it will be the run. We’ve gotten to the point where we understand whatever they give us is what we’re going to take.

That provides confidence for the Cornhuskers that they can exploit whatever weakness they can find.

“If they are going to load up the box against the run, we’re going to do some passing stuff and vice versa,” Hickman said. “I think we really have an understanding of what the coaches are trying to accomplish on a given play, being it set them up for future plays or whatever it may be. I think everybody is on the same page, which is huge.”