Maybe it was the full moon, or maybe it was just a coincidence.
All across the midwest on Saturday, chaos reigned supreme and Nebraska was not immune from it.
Minnesota needed a miracle catch in the final seconds to avoid an upset against Georgia Southern. Michigan State needed the opposite of a miracle to lose at home against Arizona State. One state over, Iowa and Iowa State played through six hours of mud, hail and field goals only to have the game end on two Cyclones tackling each other on a punt return as the ball bounced off one of them into Iowa’s hands.
The Hawkeye state anarchy rubbed off on its neighbors to the west as well, with the delays in Ames pushing the entire first half of Nebraska’s game onto the FOX Business Network instead of FS1.
In the first half of Nebraska’s prime time rematch with Northern Illinois, chaos struck early and often. There were two blocked punts, three blocked field goals, two punts downed inside the Nebraska 20-yard line by Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers and a safety caused by a failed screen in the end zone.
Northern Illinois also ran a fake punt inside its own 30 and attempted an onside kick that sailed well over the players’ heads into the Nebraska sideline.
Sequences as bizarre as what unfolded for Nebraska and Northern Illinois tend to be the origins of an upset, as it was in 2017 when the Huskies returned two interceptions for touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead over the Huskers.
Yet when the smoke settled at halftime, Nebraska was handily in control with the ever-so-common 30-5 lead.
It’s been a long time since Nebraska had a comfortable win over an FBS non-conference opponent. Four years to be exact. But with a decisive 44-8 victory, all three phases of the Nebraska football team took another step forward. That includes the man in charge, too.
It’s very rare for a head coach at any level or in any sport admit they were wrong, but Scott Frost did just that after the win.
Frost was heavily criticized by the media and fans for running the ball twice to start overtime last week, and explaining after that he did so to reduce the possibility of an interception. For a coach that routinely preaches to his team to play with no fear of failure, that decision appeared hypocritical and he acknowledged it after Saturday’s win.
“Maybe I needed to get the lesson from outside and from my assistant coaches last week,” Frost said after the win. “We preach a desire to excel and a fear of no failure all the time and if we want the players to be that way, we need to be that way as coaches. That means calling what we need to call, rolling the dice, letting them play, being aggressive...For them to do that, we need to do that.”
In Saturday’s game, Frost righted his wrong by getting aggressive in the final minute of the first half. After Bowers’ second pooch punt landed at the Nebraska 19-yard line with 44 seconds left, Frost opted to let his offense be aggressive and try to score again before the half instead of kneeling the ball and ending it early.
The result was a quick five-play drive over the next 39 seconds that resulted in senior wide receiver Kanawai Noa catching his first career touchdown. The move paid dividends in the second half, as the Huskies’ opening drive of the second half ended in a field goal that only pulled them within 22 instead of 15.
After his press conference concluded, Frost walked back towards his office and put his arm around his offense’s breakout star of the night, junior running back Dedrick Mills.
After spending the previous two seasons at a junior college in Kansas, Mills struggled in his return to Division I football with 68 yards on 23 carries in his first two games. Two days earlier, Frost hinted that Mills was about to turn a corner, noting that he had a strong week of practice and was making better cuts.
Frost’s hunch came to fruition, as Mills became the first player to rush for over 100 yards against Northern Illinois since November of 2017. No one had a bigger smile after the game than Mills, who finished with 118 rushing yards on 13 carries.
“It felt amazing,” Mills said afterwards. “I’ve been trying to get one of these [games] for two weeks since I’ve been here, since I’ve been playing the game at this level.”
Perhaps the most promising sign for Nebraska on Saturday night was that not everyone was satisfied following the game. While players beamed at the podium talking about their impressive play, freshman safety Noa Pola-Gates quietly started working out in the gym behind the media scrum.
Pola-Gates committed Nebraska’s only penalty of the night, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a kickoff with three minutes left in the third quarter.
“It was a lot closer to a clean game,” Frost said. “We’ve still got to execute better on offense when we get chances, particularly on turnovers.”
Nebraska got to play under the Memorial Stadium lights for the first time since Frost took over. Thanks to its performance, as well as Ohio State’s, there is a strong chance that Nebraska’s next home game in two weeks will be played under similar circumstances.
The Huskers have started to develop chemistry on offense and within the coaching staff again. The defense did what it was supposed to do, and kept a lackluster Northern Illinois offense out of the end zone. They even had a prideful goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter.
With non-conference play in the books, it is still hard to gauge the potential of Nebraska’s season. The Huskers improved significantly each week, but will not face elite competition until September 28.
Nebraska has proved that it can bounce back from a heartbreaking loss in resounding fashion, which has not been the case for several years. Now, its attention shifts towards snapping a seven-game road losing streak as it opens conference play at Illinois (2-1) next Saturday night.
The first of several judgment days for this season is drawing nearer, and the Huskers proved Saturday night that they are willing to go through the preparation and practice that it takes to be ready for a test that large.