Maybe Nebraska got too cocky. Maybe the Huskers were looking ahead to next week. Maybe NU had written off Northern Illinois before the 11 a.m. game had even started. Or maybe all of the above.
Regardless of the mindset or reason behind it, Nebraska recorded its second loss of the season on Saturday, falling 21-17 to the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Nebraska put on a display similar to its performance last week in Eugene, Oregon — night and day performances between the first and second halves — sealing its fate with an interception in the final minutes of the game.
The first half was marked by turnovers, incomplete passes and an offensive line which seemed incapable of protecting its quarterback. The second half was highlighted by glimmers of hope, with a sour ending for the home team in Memorial stadium.
On the first drive of the game, NU drove down the field looking to score. An interception by Tanner Lee ended those hopes, and NIU returned the ball 87 yards for a touchdown and the first points of the day. Nebraska’s next two drives ended in three-and-outs, forcing Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn to get more use than desired out of his punting leg.
The next disaster for Nebraska was result of another pick 6 thrown by Lee. NIU’s Jawuan Johnson snagged the interception and ran it back 25 yards for another Huskies' touchdown.
The Huskers’ offense continued to shoot itself in the foot, giving up a combined 35 yards on four offensive penalties. A missed 37-yard field goal from Nebraska kicker Drew Brown ended the half on a worrisome note.
At the end of the first half, Northern Illinois was up by 14, with all of its points coming from pick 6s. It wasn’t that NIU’s offense was stellar — it only had 88 yards in the first half — it was that NU’s offense gave the Huskies the lead early in the game.
As the band took the field marking the start of halftime, the traditional ‘first touchdown’ red balloons crowded the skyline after being released by fans who had all but given up hope of a Husker comeback.
The bright spot in the half was Bob Diaco’s defense. After trailing by 28 points at the half against Oregon last week, the 3-4 scheme did not give up any points to the Ducks in the second half.
This week, the Huskers’ secondary followed suit against the Huskies, only giving up a combined 88 yards and no touchdowns during the first half. Whatever Diaco’s defense was doing, it worked to shutout another opposing offense for the fourth consecutive quarter.
At the beginning of the second half, much like last week, a new team seemed to emerge from the Nebraska locker room after halftime. Nebraska’s defense was fired up and for the first time during the game, the offense seemed to follow suit.
Midway through the third quarter, Nebraska caught a break. A muffed punt by NIU returner Jaylen Embry resulted in Nebraska recovering at the Northern Illinois 2-yard line. Shortly after, Lee took advantage of an open lane and ran it for a touchdown putting Nebraska on the board for the first time.
After a couple of big stops from the Blackshirts, NU got the ball back and set up Drew Brown to redeem himself with a 36-yard field goal. At the end of the third quarter, Nebraska still trailed but had significantly narrowed the gap.
The Huskers kept fighting, and Lee connected with JD Spielman at the 2-yard line setting up a quarterback sneak for Lee a couple of plays later. For the first time all day, NU led the Huskies by four.
With less than 10 minutes left in the game, Northern Illinois received its first penalty of the day, pushing the Huskies back 5 yards. Despite the setback, NIU easily made it into the endzone, regaining the lead.
NU’s drive attempting a comeback fell short, capped off with an incomplete pass to Tyler Hoppes on fourth-and-7. After another drive by the NIU offense, the Huskers got the ball back with 3:09 left in the game. Lee threw his third interception of the day, sealing Nebraska’s fate. A few plays later, NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina took a knee, putting NU’s second loss of the season in the books.
Lee ended the game 25-47 with three interceptions and 299 total passing yards — a significant portion of the offensive’s total 384 yards.
After the game, head coach Mike Riley was transparent about his team’s performance, speaking to the offensive struggles and the lack of efficiency from the line.
“Obviously we are not playing good enough on offense right now. And certainly we’re not playing well enough when we commit penalties,” Riley said in a postgame press conference. “We’re not consistent enough in any part of our offense. Running, blocking, making plays.”
Riley emphasized that the team is a unit and that it all has to work together. However, he did give the defense a word of praise. The Blackshirts only gave up a combined 165 total yards and one touchdown, a turnaround performance from the previous two weeks.
“You win and lose as a team, but there are units, whether special teams and offense and defense,” Riley said. “And I think you have to recognize, you know, what units obviously need better performance, and you can recognize that our defense played a lot of good football today.”
Though offering very little overall positivity, he said the team will continue to look work hard to get back on track.
“We have to stick together,” Riley said. “There is no way out of a hole like this without working. So, the ability to kind of get to Monday so that we can start to get better is kind of the theme right now.”