History has a funny way of repeating itself.
Two years after losing a close game at a Pac-12 foe and subsequently losing at home to Northern Illinois, Nebraska football is hoping to rewrite a different ending to the reprise.
After a shaky 35-21 win over South Alabama and a heartbreaking 34-31 overtime loss at Colorado, the Huskers will face the Huskies in one final non-conference tuneup on Saturday night. Northern Illinois (1-1) has proven to be no pushover, hanging tough with No. 11 Utah in the first half last week before letting a 21-17 deficit balloon into a 35-17 loss.
“I know what Utah is all about as a program and seeing them in a tight game with Utah in the second quarter caught my attention,” head coach Scott Frost said of Northern Illinois. “Watching them on tape, I think they have some receivers that can hurt you. Their quarterback does a good job. He’ll surprise you with his feet and make some plays, and he did against Utah. I think they have a good scheme. Defensively, man they fly around.”
For the second consecutive week, the Huskers will square off against a first-year head coach. Thomas Hammock was hired by Northern Illinois in the offseason after coaching running backs for the Baltimore Ravens from 2014-2018. While it has been a while since he coached at the collegiate level, he is no stranger to the Big Ten Conference. Following his playing career at Northern Illinois, he was a graduate assistant at Wisconsin and coached running backs for Minnesota from 2007-2010. He was also the associate head coach and running backs coach at Wisconsin from 2011-2013.
Despite Hammock’s familiarity with running backs, the Huskies have struggled to run the ball throughout their two games this season. Sophomore Jordan Nettles and junior Tre Harbison combined to rush for 69 yards in last week’s loss, albeit on 16 carries. Harbison ran for 99 yards on 23 carries in Northern Illinois’s 24-10 win over Illinois State in week one.
Nebraska is looking to keep that rushing attack stifled, which is something it has had great success with in its two games. The Huskers held Colorado to no rushing yards in the first half and just 89 total last week, and held South Alabama to 83 in week one.
The defense will have a shakeup in the secondary going into Saturday’s game, with sophomore cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt moving to safety to replace junior Deontai Williams, who is out indefinitely after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Nebraska’s secondary is hoping to bounce back after a tough performance last week in which Colorado threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns. It will have its hands full Saturday with graduate transfer quarterback Ross Bowers, who has completed 65% of his passes for 528 yards.
As the starting quarterback for California in 2017, Bowers threw for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns, but had 12 interceptions.
On offense, Nebraska is looking to diversify the passing game following a slow start to the season. In Boulder, junior JD Spielman and freshman Wan’Dale Robinson were the only receivers with catches. Sophomore running back Maurice Washington was Nebraska’s leading receiver with 118 yards.
“I think we need to play more guys early on to make sure the [starters] are fresh later on in the game,” Frost said of the unit. “We’ve got some guys that are close to being ready, we’ve just got to let them get out there and learn on the fly. It’s an anomaly to me that a couple of the guys haven’t seen a ball yet, but that can’t keep up.”
Graduate transfer Kanawai Noa was expected to make a significant impact on the receiving corps, but is yet to make a catch through two games. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez targeted him 30 yards downfield in the final minute last week, but the pass was overthrown and intercepted.
Martinez should have an easier time in the pocket this week with some help from his offensive line. He was sacked six times last week, but Northern Illinois has just one sack through two games this year.
Junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills also had high expectations going into the season, but he currently has just 68 rushing yards on 23 carries. Frost said on Thursday he thinks Mills is close to turning a corner.
“Dedrick has had some chances,” Frost said. “Game one, I don’t think there was a lot for him to work with. He’s missed a couple cuts that he won’t miss once he gets more familiar. I still expect great things out of him and he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing the rest of the year and on Saturday and beyond.”
Saturday will also be the first night home game of the Scott Frost era. The Huskers were supposed to face Akron in prime time last season, but the game was canceled due to inclement weather. Nebraska had won 20 consecutive home night games, but lost its last two primetime games in 2017 in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 94-31 against Wisconsin and Ohio State, ranked No. 7 and 5, respectively.
“There’s something special about Memorial Stadium at night,” Frost said. “I can’t wait to see the environment. We’ve got the best fans anywhere and we’re all grateful for them. I can’t wait to see the buzz in the stadium.”
While most of Nebraska’s current roster does not have much experience playing at night, Spielman has excelled under the lights throughout his career. In six career night games, he has 627 receiving yards and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Saturday’s game will kick off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on FS1.