Austin Allen was able to look back at his first touchdown of the season and smile, even though Nebraska had fallen in a close game to Michigan and even though, as it turns out, the scoring play shouldn’t have counted in the first place.
Allen, the fifth-year junior tight end from Aurora, sneaked behind the Wolverines’ linebacking corps and hauled in a play-action pass from Adrian Martinez for a 41-yard touchdown to get NU on the board for the first time early in the third quarter and spark a 29-point second half.
“That was a really good feeling," Allen said. "It wasn’t so much of a good feeling when I watched it on film and we were in an illegal formation, technically. I probably would’ve strangled somebody on the outside if they got that called back, but it was really nice to get, kind of, the ice broken for the season.
“Hopefully the floodgates are open now for more to come.”
Indeed, Nebraska had five men lined up in the backfield and got away with it.
He was also right about the floodgates part.
The 6-foot-9, 260-pounder followed up that night against the Wolverines with the best game of his career Saturday in NU’s 30-23 loss at Minnesota.
Allen caught five passes for 121 yards and another touchdown, essentially doubling his previous best outing (61 yards against Fordham earlier this year).
“Austin had another great day and he’s become a guy that we can count on, on and off the field,” coach Scott Frost said on his Sunday night television show after the game. “I’m happy for him.”
Allen has always had a knack for being a big-play threat. He had a 41-yard grab at Ohio State in 2018 as a redshirt freshman, two 20-plus yard catches in 2019 and five last year in NU’s eight-game season.
He had four alone on Saturday against the Gophers and now has six through Nebraska’s first eight games this season. Allen rolled up receptions of 40, 30, 22 and 20. His other catch was a leaping, 9-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. On that play, he stopped his route as if he was running a comeback short of the goal line, then spun toward the back corner of the end zone and made a contested catch for his second score in as many weeks.
“We’ve had that in the playbook for a while now,” Allen said. “It’s good to see that it actually works.”
Given the way the Huskers have struggled in the red zone, particularly throwing the ball, it’s easy to wonder if they’ll try to look Allen’s way more often over the final four games of the season.
“That seems like what we have had trouble with in a handful of games here and there is being able to stuff it into the end zone when it matters, getting seven points instead of three,” Allen said. “It’s frustrating not finishing those drives, but all we can do now is learn from it.”
His 30-yard reception set up a third-quarter touchdown and the 40-yarder pushed NU down into the red zone again, though the Huskers ultimately were stopped when Jaquez Yant tripped short of the goal line on fourth-and-inches.
“Just looking on film, Coach thought we had some matchup advantages at the tight end position and put together a great game plan for the tight ends,” Allen said. “Made some plays all across the board; we just need to find a way to make one or two more plays when it matters.”
Allen, though, is tracking toward the best receiving year by a Husker tight end in more than a decade. In recent years, Tyler Hoppes finished with 34 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns in 2017. Kyler Reed had 22 for 395 and eight scores in 2010 and Mike McNeill had 32 for 442 and six scores in 2008. Going back further, Matt Herian had 484 yards and three scores in 2003.
Allen, currently 13th in the Big Ten among all pass-catchers with 343 yards on 24 catches, could push past all of those marks.
He’s currently on pace to finish with 515 receiving yards. If he were to keep up the average pace over his past four games (63 receiving yards per outing), he’d push toward 600.
Allen would likely trade the personal accolades for wins down the stretch, but he’ll be a key in the offense over the final four games regardless.
“Keep swinging. That’s one thing I know about this team is that we are going to keep fighting even though our backs are against the wall,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to give these last four games everything we got.”