Nebraska is coming off one of the most painful losses of the Scott Frost era, blowing a 17-point halftime lead and losing 34-31 to rival Colorado in overtime. However, the Huskers have moved on and are focused on their next opponent, Northern Illinois. The game should be a Husker win, but the Huskies upset Nebraska in 2017 and looked respectable in a 35-17 loss against No. 11 Utah last week.
With plenty of questions surrounding the Huskers heading into week three, here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s game:
A consistent performance
One thing repeated by Nebraska coaches and players throughout the week was that the team has to be able to finish games. The Huskers led 17-0 late in the third quarter against Colorado last Saturday. Then, the offense began to stall and the defense let up 31 points in the last 17 minutes of regulation along with another three points in overtime.
“We’ve got to be able to finish,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Hate to say it, but that’s part of growing up as a program, we’ve got to finish on defense, we’ve got to finish the fourth quarter like we played the first three, and we win that football game.”
This week, don’t expect the same letdown from Nebraska. After such a crushing loss, the Huskers will stay focused throughout all 60 minutes no matter how large the lead gets. Nebraska should already know it can’t sit back and relax against a subpar Northern Illinois team, as upsets have happened in the past.
Nebraska needs to make a statement in this game to show it has the ability to dominate all four quarters. If the Huskers can do that, it may be a big step in the right direction for a team that has shown little consistency.
Through two weeks, Nebraska has shown potential to be great at nearly every position group. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez rebounded from a shaky week one performance with four touchdowns against Colorado in week two. Sophomore running back Maurice Washington and junior wideout JD Spielman had great games against Colorado, combining for three touchdowns and 307 all-purpose yards. The defense has also shown flashes, forcing seven turnovers through two games.
The position that has the most questions to answer at the moment is kicker. Sophomore Barret Pickering was solid to end 2018, but has been out with an injury. Freshman Dylan Jorgensen started for the Huskers in week one, making all five extra points but had his only field goal blocked.
Senior punter Isaac Armstrong took over in week two and delivered a mostly solid performance, making four extra points and an early field goal. However, he shanked a crucial 48-yard field goal that lost Nebraska the game in overtime.
Armstrong is listed atop the depth chart again for week three, with Jorgensen as the backup. It’s unlikely that Saturday’s game comes down to a field goal, but it will be interesting to see if Armstrong can be a consistent placekicker for the Huskers or if their field goal woes will continue.
No repeat of 2017
It’s almost impossible to talk about the matchup with Northern Illinois without thinking about the 21-17 Nebraska loss from 2017. However, don’t expect it to happen again, or even come close.
Despite that upset happening just two years ago, both teams are in very different positions now. The biggest change is that Frost will be coaching for the Huskers instead of Mike Riley, but the personnel has changed as well. Nebraska will bring out a different quarterback, new running backs, and a mostly new receiving corps with the exception of Spielman. On the defensive side, senior linebacker Mohamed Barry, senior cornerback Lamar Jackson and others were on the team in 2017, but the feel of the team is much different.
Northern Illinois also isn’t the same team it was two years ago. The Huskies also have a new quarterback, along with a first-year head coach. With few of the major contributors returning for both teams, Saturday’s game likely won’t resemble the previous matchup at all.
The Huskies aren’t necessarily pushovers, having played a competitive game last week against No. 11 Utah, but Nebraska should still be able to handle business. The Huskers are a much better team now than they were two years ago and fans shouldn’t worry about a repeat of 2017.