Nebraska Defense Preparing for Mobile QB in Justin Fields
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers ‘Turn a Corner’ in 44-8 Win Over Northern Illinois

September 15, 2019

A week ago, head coach Scott Frost’s play-calling was questioned. In an overtime situation where seven points meant a win and failing to score meant going home disappointed, he played it safe on his first two calls, saying he didn’t want to put the ball in the air and risk an interception. 

Fast-forward to Saturday night and the Huskers have just given up a safety. It’s 23-5 and Nebraska has dominated the game in a number of ways and yet nothing feels comfortable about an 18-point lead. There’s 44 seconds left in the half and Nebraska is starting out at its own 13-yard-line after forcing a Northern Illinois punt. 

Frost could have played it safe. Take a knee. Go into the half without doing any more damage. Instead, Nebraska marches 87 yards in 39 seconds. Frost goes for broke and his team responds. 

“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,” Frost said. “That means calling what we need to call, rolling the dice, letting them play, being aggressive. That’s the way I want our team to think and if we get the ball back with 40 seconds we want them to think score. For them to do that, we need to do that.”

Nebraska (2-1) scored on half its possessions Saturday against the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-2). It never went more than two drives without putting points on the board. The offense produced nine 20-yard plays after just eight in the first two weeks. The defense kept the Huskies out of the end zone. A week after failing to close the door on Colorado in Boulder, the Huskers never let the Huskies open it under the lights of Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska left Saturday night with a 44-8 win and its coach thinking finally.

“I kind of feel like we’ve rounded a little bit of a corner,” Frost said. 

The offense scored on its opening possession, then ripped off a 61-yard run on the next drive, then scored again on the first play of the third drive. Quarterback Adrian Martinez thought the mindset was right from the open. 

You can see Martinez growing in comfort. There are still misreads in coverage and errant throws, but the best part of his 301-yard, three-score day was the zero in the turnover column. 

MORE: A New Way to Win | Play of the Game | Gallery 

There’s maybe a chicken-and-egg thing going on here; was Frost’s aggressiveness driving Martinez and the offense, or was Martinez’s play supercharging Frost? It probably doesn’t much matter either way, though, because that side of the ball appears to be finding its groove. 

“Regardless of how much time is on the clock, or any point in the game, I am always confident in our guys and Coach Frost,” Martinez said. 

But 30-5 feels a lot different than 23-5. 

When the defense gives up points on the first possession of the second half, there isn’t as much panic. When the Blackshirts gave up three on a 12-play, 66-yard drive, there was none. 

Northern Illinois went three-and-out, then turned it over on downs, then turned it over, then turned it over on downs to end the game. For the evening, the Huskies hit at just 4.3 yards a play despite being on the field for 38 minutes.

“Coming into the season, people thought we were just going to hang with the offense,” said senior linebacker Mohamed Barry. “When we came into the season, we wanted to be an elite defense and that’s what we strive to do. We want to stop them. We’re trying to be an elite defense. Not just a defense that counts on the offense to win games, we’re trying to win games for this team.”

For the second time in their last five games, the Blackshirts kept an opponent from reaching the end zone. Prior to Frost’s arrival, that had only been done once in the previous five seasons. A unit that ranked 107th against the run last year has now held three straight opponents under 100 yards.

While the offense was attempting to reintroduce itself as the group Husker faithful grew accustomed to late last season, the defense was busy establishing itself as a legitimate force to be reckoned with.

With 2 yards separating NIU from pay dirt on a fourth-quarter second down, the Huskies got 1. 

Needing just 1 yard on third, the Huskies got none. Replay checked to make sure NIU tailback Tra Harbison didn’t break the plane of the end zone and found nothing concrete. A run up the gut came up empty.

On fourth, NIU abandoned its original play-call and quarterback Ross Bowers rolled out wide. Nebraska denied the Huskies one final time. First-and-goal from the 8; nothing to show for it.

“That’s being a Blackshirt,” said defensive tackle Darrion Daniels. “The occasion presented itself and we rose to it.

“I’m not going to lie, I take offense to that. I feel like we’re the best interior in the nation. I feel like we have the potential to be one of the best, so for teams to feel like they can run the ball up the middle, I take it as a slap in the face. It really makes me want to come off a little bit harder.”

The game was in hand at that point — with just under 13 minutes to go in the fourth the Huskers were up 37-8 — but Nebraska wanted to finish. 

“We talked about it all week,” Alex Davis, a senior outside ‘backer, said. “In Colorado, we went out and played great football for three quarters and in that fourth quarter, we let it die off. We’ve been talking about it all week, we’re going to play four quarters all the way through. Don’t let up. I feel like we didn’t.”

With Big Ten play beginning next week on the road against Illinois, there’s no question in anyone’s mind that play can keep up.

“It’s Big Ten play,” Barry said. “I set the goal. We have one goal. We’re trying to go to Indianapolis, but the thing is we’ve got to take every game one game at a time.”

Added Martinez: “If we can keep on getting better at this rate, then we are going to win a lot of football games this year.”

A week ago Nebraska collapsed. Confidence appears to be back.

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