The Nebraska Cornhuskers (1-2) lost in stunning fashion to the Northern Illinois Huskies (2-1) 21-17 on Saturday in front of 89,664 fans at Memorial Stadium.
“This will sound like an understatement but we are just really, bitterly disappointed with losing the game,” Nebraska head football coach Mike Riley said following the defeat. “Obviously, we are not playing good enough on offense right now. We’re not consistent enough in any part of our offense – running, blocking, making plays, so we could never recover from giving them two touchdowns early on and winning the game at the end.”
“So, it’s really, really disappointing and that’s what we have to find in the next week to play a better game.”
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst made a surprise appearance in the hallway outside of Nebraska’s postgame press conference on Saturday to express his feelings on the loss and on the direction of the program.
“Frustration, angry, unacceptable, disappointment, you go through all of those emotions in tough times,” Eichorst said. “When you’re around these good people and good young men, certainly you think about that and how to lead. It’s easy to lead when things are going well, but when you have adversity, you have to stand up and think and do the right things all the time. I don’t there’s any question; it’s not acceptable.”
“I have a lot of trust and faith in (Riley’s) abilities. We’ve got to regroup and get our kids headed in the right direction. There is no excuses to be made, and they won’t make them.”
Eichorst had a message for any frustrated fans doubting the direction of the program
“Hang in there,” Eichort said. “We have a good group of young men in that locker room who are working really hard to represent us and win ballgames. I would say the same thing about our staff, but everyone has to take it up a notch and we got to get moving in the right direction. Hang in there.”
The Huskies got off to a hot start defensively when senior cornerback Shawun Lurry picked off Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee on a bubble screen and took it back 87 yards for a pick six, giving Northern Illinois a 7-0 lead with 11:24 left in the first quarter.
“That was tough,” Lee said. “They just had a perfect defense, I took a gamble and they blitzed the corner who jumped that bubble throw and took it to the house. That was a tough way to start a game, but you’ve got to think that we are able to drive the ball and put it behind us.”
Lee finished the game 25-of-47 with 299 yards passing and three interceptions. He also had two rushing touchdowns.
“I think as an offense, we’ve got to play better, and I know we will,” Lee said. “I look forward to getting back to work on Monday.”
Lee threw a second pick six later on in the first quarter. Nebraska’s quarterback was hit from behind as he threw, and Huskies linebacker Jawuan Johnson picked off an angle route and took it 25 yards the other way for a score.
“We have to coach (Lee) and support him right now,” Riley said. “I don’t know him well enough in these kind of tough situations, but the time I’ve been around him I’ve been very impressed with him. I think he’ll come back to work and get ready for the next game in a great manner, and I’ve got a lot of confidence that will occur and that he will be anxious to do that.”
The Huskies led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, despite only 32 yards of offense.
Northern Illinois began the second quarter with the ball and drove all the way to the Nebraska 22-yard-line. Senior placekicker and Omaha Westside native Christian Hagan missed a 39-yard field goal, giving Nebraska the ball back with 11:16 left in the first half.
The Huskers assembled a solid offensive drive in the final 3:26 of the second quarter, achieving a first down and goal at the 9, but a Tanner Lee sack pushed Nebraska back to the 17-yard line.
Lee was sacked three times in the game.
Senior placekicker Drew Brown came on to try a 37-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, but senior defensive tackle William Lee got a hand on the ball and the attempt fell well short of the uprights.
Northern Illinois got the ball to start the second half, but both teams went three-and-out twice to start the third quarter.
On Nebraska’s second three-and-out, sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn came in for his sixth punt of the day and kicked the ball down to the NIU 24-yard line. Junior punt returner Jalen Embry muffed the punt, and after a long scramble, redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke came out of the bottom of the pile with the football for the Huskers.
Lee scored two plays later on a four-yard run to put Nebraska on the board with 8:05 left in the third quarter.
Lee didn’t have a rushing touchdown in his college career before Saturday.
Nebraska’s defense stopped Northern Illinois on the ensuing drive in just four plays, giving the ball back to the Huskers with 6:35 to go in the third quarter.
Nebraska marched 71 yards on 15 plays, ending the drive with a 36-yard field goal from Brown.
The drive took 6:20 off the clock, narrowing the Huskies’ lead to 14-10 by the end of the third quarter.
After a three-and-out by the Huskies’ offense to start the fourth quarter, Nebraska’s offense came on the field ready to play. The Huskers pieced together a six-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Lee on a quarterback sneak.
Nebraska had its first lead, 17-14, with 11:14 left in the game.
Northern Illinois’ offense woke up with a quick answer. On the first play of the Huskies’ ensuing drive, sophomore quarterback Daniel Santacaterina hit senior receiver Christian Blake on a 47-yard completion to fuel a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive which put the Huskies ahead for good with 8:46 left in the game.
“That was really their only long play of the game,” Riley said. “And that was probably about the only drive they really had. Besides that, defensively, there was a lot of good play and improvement probably.”
The drive was capped off with a two-yard rushing touchdown by senior running back Jordan Huff.
Huff finished the game with 16 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown.
Santacaterina, in his second career start, was quiet but efficient, completing 15 out of 22 throws for 128 yards.
Blake was his lead receiver with five catches for 77 yards.
Nebraska got the ball back twice after NIU’s last score. The first drive ended on a failed fourth down conversion attempt and the other ended with Lee’s third interception of the day.
“Our results offensively speak for themselves as a very disappointing effort, and we play as a unit,” Riley said. “It was evident on the pressure on the quarterback. It was also evident that we just didn’t really run the ball consistently, either.”
Junior running Mikale Wilbon made his first career start for Nebraska due to sophomore running back Tre Bryant being sidelined with a knee injury.
Wilbon finished with 24 carries for 90 yards.
“(I ran) average,” Wilbon said. “I can do better and I will do better.”
Defensively, Nebraska limited Northern Illinois to just 253 yards of offense. The Huskies also had four drives that ended in a three-and-out and eight drives that ended with a punt.
“We really found something to work with after that Oregon game and we knew we wanted to get going from the jump,” Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford said. “I would say that it was more execution. We really just worked our tail off on the last couple of pressures. It was a good added dimension to our defense today. I think we were happy with that.”
Gifford led the Huskers in tackles with eight total.
Nebraska stays home next Saturday to face Rutgers in its annual Homecoming game. Kickoff from Memorial Stadium is set for 2:30 p.m.
By Tommy Rezac