Zac Lee passed for touchdowns on his final three series and converted linebacker LaTravis Washington built a case to be Lee's backup in Nebraska's Red-White Spring Game Saturday afternoon won by the Red team 31-17 before 77,670 at Memorial Stadium.
Lee quarterbacked six drives, then took off the rest of the afternoon after the Reds' first series of the second half. He completed 15-of-18 passes for 214 yards, throwing TD passes of 21 yards to Marcus Mendoza, 24 yards to Ben Cotton and 40 yards to Wes Cammack.
Washington hit on 13-of-21 for 190 yards, throwing TD passes of four yards to Chris Brooks and 71 yards to Kyler Reed.
True freshman Cody Green also got significant playing time, splitting series with Washington in the first half and taking over the Red squad after Lee left in the third quarter. Green was a combined 8-for-15 for 81 yards.
With the graduation of 2008 starter Joe Ganz, quarterbacks took center stage. All three wore green jerseys, signifying that they were off-limits for contact. If they were tagged by a defender, play stopped.
"It was great to get guys out there on the football field in front of the crowd so they get their feet wet," said coach Bo Pelini. "There were a lot of young guys out there playing for the first time. You want them to get more confidence and the confidence grew as the game went on. Hopefully it makes us better come the fall."
Lee, who saw mop-up duty in two games last season as the No. 3 quarterback, clearly was the most polished of the three in the scrimmage.
The Reds went three plays and out on their first two series, with the second one ending when Ndamukong Suh brushed Lee in the backfield on third down.
"I was almost expecting Suh to maybe pick me up and pretend to throw me down, just because that's Suh," said Lee, who completed 9 of his next 12 passes, with six of them going for more than 10 yards.
"Zac had a great spring," said Pelini. "He managed things well. He's a very confident kid. He did a lot of good things."
Washington is the former linebacker who started playing quarterback this spring for the first time since his senior year in high school three years ago.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is known for having a strong arm, sometimes too strong. Receivers said all spring that Washington left their hands stinging from his hard-thrown passes. Fans who saw the scrimmage know what they were talking about now.
Washington's first pass was a short bullet in the gut that Dreu Young did well to hang on to and Brooks had to leap high to catch a ball over the middle on his second throw.
After Washington led the White team to the Red 11, he let fly a rocket to the corner of the end zone that flew over Will Henry's head and hit the back fence, almost drilling a security guard.
Washington seemed more at ease during his second series. He threw crisp spirals to Antonio Bell for 11 yards and to Young for 20 and then he lobbed a high jump ball that Bell won over walk-on cornerback Jase Dean for 27 yards.
"I should have laid it out there a little more, but he made a spectacular catch," said Washington. "In high school, I probably would have gunned it in there and probably would have thrown it 15 yards over his head. In this atmosphere and this environment, you have to calm yourself down and block out the fans block out the media and just play ball."
Two plays later, Washington found Brooks for a four-yard touchdown. On Washington's second touchdown pass, he showed poise staying in the pocket before throwing to the flat where Reed made the catch and took off upfield for the 71-yard score.
"I think I made a case," said Washington. "All decisions are with the coaches. All I can do is put my play on film and go from there. It would be a wonderful deal to back up Zac Lee or even compete for a starting job. Everybody wants the starting job. That's why I'm here. I'm a competitor. I want to be the guy, like everybody else. I know I have a role on the team and I don't want to step on people's toes and say I'm the guy. You just have to play your role, sit in the back and go from there."
Redshirt freshman Collins Okafor was the top rusher, running 11 times for 79 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown for the Reds. Lester Ward led the Whites with 10 carries for 53 yards.
Brooks caught five balls for 48 yards for the Reds and Cotton four for 48 for the Whites.
Pelini said he was comfortable with the quarterback situation entering the fall. He won't name his starting quarterback until then, but there was little doubt after the scrimmage that Lee will be the guy. "He's clearly ahead," said Pelini.
"It was a long, physical spring. The competition was there and I think we're a deeper football team because we have more guys who know what's being asked of them. We're nowhere near being the finished product, nowhere near being game ready, but we made a lot of strides in a lot of areas."
Though the score would indicate otherwise, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said his defense made significant improvement over the last month.
"The spring game is hard on the defense since much in our system depends on communication. When you're in there with guys you're not used to working with, it can be hard, but we made significant improvement this spring."
In particular, Carl said the linebackers and defensive backs got better at decision making, understanding schemes and concepts and being aggressive.
Husker defenders agreed that spring 2009 was more productive than 2008 because they had spent a year in the system brought to Nebraska by Pelini and his brother Bo.
"Last year we really were just learning the defense, trying to figure out what to do," said tackle Jared Crick. "Last fall, we learned some more. This spring we were able to pick up where we left off. We could work on technique and aggressiveness. To be a great defense, you have to be aggressive."
Familiarity might have had something to do with the improvement, but Carl Pelini attributed "99 percent" of it to the players' attitude and hard work. "We've had as hard a spring as I've ever been through just in terms of what we asked them to do."
Both Crick and Suh, the likely starters at defensive tackle, said this spring was the most physical and demanding of their time at Nebraska.
"It was a real physical spring, but it's all beneficial," said Crick. "Coach Pelini put us in disadvantaged positions all spring and we had to fight through them so when we get in disadvantaged positions in the fall, we'll be ready."
A third factor working for the defense is its depth. Each starter has at least one backup pushing him for playing time, said Carl Pelini. That creates competition for every position.
"I love competing," said cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. "Every cornerback is going to compete and I want to get on the field. So I have to focus and do whatever it takes to get there. If a coach says do something, you do it and you do it right."
Carl said he, too, loves the competition, which helps create the aggressiveness that makes a successful defense. "If they keep that attitude and keep flying around out there, we have a chance to be a very good defense."
How good? "I think we can be at the top of the country," said Suh. "We have that potential."