LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska scored two defensive touchdowns and one on special teams, bailing out a sluggish offense and leading the No. 24 Cornhuskers to a 35-21 victory over South Alabama on Saturday.
The five-touchdown favorite Huskers led only 14-7 at halftime and totaled just 66 yards in the second half. But their defense had five takeaways, the biggest one Eric Lee Jr.'s 38-yard interception return for a touchdown, and JD Spielman ran back a punt 76 yards to make it a three-touchdown game early in the third quarter.
Any easing of the anxiety at Memorial Stadium was temporary. South Alabama converted two straight turnovers into touchdowns to cut it to 28-21 and had the ball heading into the fourth quarter.
Things started turning for Nebraska when Cam Taylor hammered Jaguars quarterback Cephus Johnson, popping the ball loose, and Alex Davis picked it up at the goal line and stepped into the end zone for a touchdown.
Then, with South Alabama threatening from the Nebraska 12, Taylor stepped in front of Johnson's pass and ran in back to midfield.
It was the second straight time the Huskers struggled against an opponent from the Sun Belt Conference. Last year they lost at home to Troy, one of the lowest points in a 4-8 season.
Nebraska had difficulty establishing the run against what was the 101st-ranked rushing defense last season. The Huskers averaged 2.2 yards per carry and finished with 98 on the ground.
Martinez was intercepted once and nearly two other times, center Cam Jurgens shot a snap over Martinez's head for a 20-yard loss and the offensive line was beaten often by pass rushers.
The Huskers' best series was their first, when they drove 81 yards for a touchdown. That marked the seventh time in eight games they've scored on their opening possession. Only three of their remaining possessions lasted more than five plays.
Lee's interception return was the first defensive touchdown since Scott Frost took over at Nebraska last year. Then it was Spielman's turn. He sidestepped the South Alabama gunner, took off to his right, nearly stepped out of bounds at the 35 and pulled away from a diving defender for his second career punt return for a touchdown.
But Spielman muffed the next punt, and South Alabama recovered and scored three plays later on Johnson's 9-yard toss to Davyn Flenord. The Jaguars' A.J. DeShazor then intercepted Martinez to set up Johnson's 13-yard TD pass to Khameron Taylor.
Nebraska went three-and-out, and South Alabama started its next series at its 12. That's when Cam Taylor took over, first forcing the fumble with his big hit on Johnson and then all but shutting the door on South Alabama with his interception.
South Alabama: The Jaguars look like they could be better than the 3-9 team in coach Steve Campbell's first year.
Nebraska: The Huskers will be facing questions all week about their poor production on offense. They were outgained 314-276.
Nebraska was in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2014. The voters must decide if the Huskers still merit a spot after having to fight for four quarters against a Sun Belt Conference opponent.
South Alabama hosts Jackson State.
Nebraska visits Colorado, which came from behind to win in Lincoln last year.