football Edit

10 things we learned from Nebraska's win over Northern Illinois

Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways following Nebraska's 44-8 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday night...

1. Nebraska made progress this week

You have to be careful not to put too much stock into a win at home over a Mid-American Conference opponent, but Saturday was easily Nebraska’s best all-around four-quarter performance of the young season.

The defense was once again dominant, and even when the offense slowed down in the second half, the Blackshirts were able to step up with turnovers and goal-line stops to prevent Northern Illinois from crawling back into the game.

The Huskers had their ups and downs on offense, but they were finally able to establish an effective running game and Adrian Martinez looked a lot more like the playmaker most expected coming into the year.

Special teams were a mixed bag, to say the least. But for the blocked field goals and extra point (NIU had three total) Nebraska allowed, it matched them with a game-changing special teams play of its own, blocking two punts and snuffing out a fake punt.

Maybe best of all, NU was called for just one penalty the entire game – an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on true freshman Noa Pola-Gates during a punt late in the third quarter.

“We got a lot better Week 1 to Week 2. We got a lot better today,” Frost said. “We still have a lot to fix. This is a work in progress. This team has an opportunity to keep improving and be a pretty solid team that has a chance to win some games down the road if we keep getting better…

“We did a lot of things a lot better out there than we had the first couple of weeks and really going back longer than that. It was great to see us get in control and stay there.”

2. Big plays highlight offense’s firepower

Nebraska continued to struggle stringing together long, clock-chewing drives late in the game when it had a chance to put Northern Illinois away for good.

When it came to the home-run plays, however, the Huskers were as dynamic as they’ve been all season.

Along with putting up a season-high 525 total yards, the offense ended up averaging 8.1 yards per play, including a whopping 11.2 in the first half.

Nebraska also had nine plays of 20 yards or longer, eight of which coming before halftime. In the previous two games, NU managed a combined eight plays of 20 yards or more.

Highlighted by a 61-yard run by Dedrick Mills and a 60-yard touchdown rush by Maurice Washington, the Huskers racked up 44 points and over 500 yards despite holding the ball for just 22:02 of game clock.

“This is what I expected,” Mills said of the offense. “We could have been better at details, and we could have executed faster. Tonight was really good. We did what we’ve been doing all week at practice.”

3. The Blackshirts continued to dominate

It’s hard to believe that going into the season some questioned whether it would be Nebraska’s defense that held the team back. As it turns out, the Blackshirts have been carrying the load through three games.

Northern Illinois’ offense didn’t present much of a challenge, but NU’s defense did exactly what it was supposed to do and completely shut down the Huskies.

The Huskers held NIU to 350 total yards, but only gave up 74 yards on the ground. They also forced two turnovers, had two tackles, and tallied seven tackles for loss as a unit.

The rushing defense was the most impressive, as Northern Illinois could do nothing in the run game and managed just 2.31 yards per carry on 32 attempts.

Saturday night marked the third straight game that NU has held an opponent under 100 yards rushing, the first time it’s done that since early in the 2017 season.

“We just knew we had to play four quarters of shutdown football, and we let one get away last week and we knew that,” senior cornerback Lamar Jackson said.

“We used that all week and fuel the fire and just made sure we got through this week and do exactly what we did and put up a dominating performance on both sides of the ball. So I'm really just ecstatic for the group and help us move into the conference."

4. Mills finally turns the corner

After receiving plenty of offseason hype from his coaches and teammates alike, Mills left much to be desired with is performance over the first two games.

But with a game-high 116 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown, the junior running back finally showed what all that talk was about on Saturday night.

Not only did former Georgia Tech and JUCO transfer showcase his physical power running style, he also gave a glimpse of some shiftiness and breakaway speed, including a 61-yard scamper in the first quarter.

He also had an impressive 24-yard touchdown run in the second, which helped him become the first opposing player to eclipse the 100-yard mark against Northern Illinois in 18 games.

Mills did fumble on the play right after his 61-yarder, but overall it was far and away his best outing as a Husker.

“I thought Dedrick made a huge step in the right direction today,” Frost said. “I think you saw a little more of the things that we were seeing as coaches in camp in a lot of different ways on offense, Dedrick being one of them.

"He runs hard, he’s got good speed. I think he did a better job of being patient and finding the hole today. That was a pretty good one-two punch today with him and Mo (Washington).”

5. Injuries to Taylor-Britt, Jaimes linger as potential major concerns

For all that went right for Nebraska on Saturday night, injuries to two key starters left a cloud of concern hovering over the team after the game.

The first was to sophomore Cam Taylor-Britt, who made his first start at safety but suffered an apparent shoulder injury early in the second quarter. Taylor-Britt went to the locker room and returned to the sideline in street clothes.

Later in the fourth quarter, junior left tackle Brenden Jaimes went down during a Martinez scramble to the other side of the field. He remained on the turf for a few minutes and had to be helped off the field by NU trainers, and he didn’t put any weight on his right leg.

Frost, as usual, declined to comment on any injury specifics, but said he hoped neither situation was serious. Frost added that he was proud of the way Broc Bando filled in for Jaimes at left tackle and young defensive backs Braxton Clark and Quinton Newsome stepped up.

“I hope those two are fine…” Frost said. “I hope these aren’t serious but if we’re going to have anybody miss any time then the next guy has to be ready.”

6. Kicking game continues to be an adventure

Nebraska had to improvise at kicker for the third straight game, as sophomore Barret Pickering was out once again with an undisclosed injury.

The Huskers rolled with senior punter Isaac Armstrong as their starting placekicker vs. Northern Illinois, a week after he missed a 48-yard field goal in overtime at Colorado.

Armstrong drilled his first field goal from 36 yards out, but then had his next two attempts from 37 and 32 yards blocked. He also had an extra point blocked in the second quarter.

That eventually led Frost to put in walk-on defensive back Lane McCallum – who was a scholarship kicker at Air Force last season – to handle the kicking duties for the rest of the game.

McCallum, who was an all-state kicker at Norfolk (Neb.) in 2017, made the most of his opportunity by connecting on all three of his extra points. McCallum did so well, in fact, that Frost said the No. 1 kicker job would be his next week at Illinois.

“I trust Isaac a lot because of how well he's done punting, but Lane kicked well all week, practice too,” Frost said. “(Tonight was) just the first time I'd ever see him kick, so it was hard for me to roll the dice on that. But we're going to keep giving him opportunities. He's done a great job at practice; did a good job tonight.”

7. Washington shows his value once again

There have been plays this season where Washington looks like the best athlete on the field, and by a wide margin. Saturday featured a number of those moments.

Washington was at his best vs. Northern Illinois, rushing for 63 yards on just four carries (an eye-popping 15.8 yards per carry) and left the Husky defense in the dust on a 60-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

He also added a 21-yard touchdown on a shovel pass in the first quarter where he put an ankle-breaking move on a defender, bounced outside and scampered into the end zone.

“He is a stud,” Martinez said of Washington. “I think that was on full display tonight.”

Washington’s numbers would have been even better had he not left the game after his first carry of the third quarter with a minor injury and did not return the rest of the night. Frost said Washington “got bumped up a little bit, but he’ll be fine.”

8. Welcome to the party, Kanawai

With only JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson recording more than one catch through the first two games, Nebraska knew it had to get more wide receivers involved in the passing game this week.

The most obvious candidate to do so was Kanawai Noa, who had played the second-most snaps (122) of any NU wideout behind Spielman (134) but had yet to make a catch on only five targets.

The graduate transfer from Cal finally made his presence felt vs. Northern Illinois, hauling in three receptions for 51 yards and a 27-yard touchdown grab at the end of the first half.

“Kanawai's one of my favorite kids,” Frost said. “It's hard to get him to say anything, but he's a grown up. He's a pro about how he comes to work every day. He got hurt a little bit in camp and he missed a bunch of time and I think that's gotten him out of rhythm. And that happened with a few of our offensive guys. And we're starting to slowly find a rhythm, including Kanawai."

9. Stalbird making a name for himself

It was impossible not to notice Isaiah Stalbird on Saturday night, as the redshirt freshman walk-on came up with two of the biggest plays of the game.

His first came when Nebraska went after Northern Illinois' second punt and Stalbird got to NIU punter Matt Ference so quickly that he caused Ference to fumble the ball. The second was almost identical, but this time Stalbird blocked Ference’s punt.

Stalbird also saw time on defense later in the game, finishing with three tackles and two tackles for loss.

Frost said that performance was a continuation of what the former Kearney (Neb.) standout had been doing in practice all fall. If those types of plays kept up, Stalbird might be on his way to losing the walk-on title sooner than later.

“Isaiah's going to be one of those poster boys for our walk-on program like Nebraska's used to having,” Frost said. “If he stays on the track that he's on, I anticipate he won't be a walk-on for too long. He's got to keep earning it, but he's been good on defense, he's been good on special teams. We're glad he's on our team.”

10. Husker football on Fox Business

Due to lightning in Ames, Iowa, the afternoon Cy-Hawk showdown between Iowa and Iowa State was delayed several hours.

As a result, Nebraska’s game vs. Northern Illinois was moved off of its original FS1 broadcast and put on one of the most random channels ever to broadcast a Husker football game – Fox Business Network.

There were likely many NU fans who had to scour their TV listings in order to find the channel, and that was where the game stayed until moving back to FS1 after Iowa-Iowa State finally ended after 9 p.m. CT.

Not including the old Pay-Per-View non-conference games the Huskers used to play before moving to the Big Ten, Saturday was easily the most obscure network to air a Nebraska game since the days of Big 12 games on the now defunct Versus Network, which has since been rebranded as the NBC Sports Network.