Nebraska suffered just its third loss at home to a non-Power Five school since the turn of the century Saturday at the hands of Norhtern Illinois.
Hail Varsity's Jacob Padilla, Greg Smith and Derek Peterson offer three final takeaways from the 21-17 defeat.
If there was a positive to take away from Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois, it was the performance of the defense. Nebraska created more pressure than either of the previous two games with nine tackles for loss and two sacks. Players like Luke Gifford, Carlos Davis and Aaron Williams were strong as usual, but I’m choosing to highlight a few reserves who stood out.
With Joshua Kalu sidelined, junior Antonio Reed got his second career start at safety and was tied for second on the team with five tackles despite playing with a protective covering over his injured thumb. Despite not having full use of his hands, Reed made a couple of strong plays including a tackle for loss.
Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson – who redshirted last season after contributing on special teams as a true freshman was flying around the field and showed off his speed both on the punt and kickoff units. First, in the third quarter with Nebraska down 14-0, Caleb Lightbourn boomed a punt 51 yards, where Northern Illinois returner Jalen Embry just barely got a hand on it for a muff. Embry chased after it, but Ferguson chased him down and slammed into him, preventing Embry from securing possession and allowing redshirt freshman Marquel Dismuke to grab it at the 2-yard line.Two plays later quarterback Tanner Lee plunged into the end zone for Nebraska’s first touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Ferguson was right there again to team up with Jeremiah Stovall for the tackle. In the fourth quarter, Ferguson made an impact on defense, reacting quickly and flying to the ball to tackle the ball-carrier after a gain of 4, setting up second and 11.
Finally, Khalil Davis got plenty of playing time on the defensive line coming off the bench and did a little of everything. Davis recorded three tackles including two for loss, half a sack, a forced fumble and a pass break-up. Davis’ previous top performance was a pair of tackles for loss against Wyoming last season. Davis showed a serious ability to push the pocket while lining up at different spots, and he also showed great instincts on the pass break-up where he got a hand up just as Northern Illinois quarterback Daniel Santacaterina released the ball, knocking it down at the line of scrimmage.
Saturday’s loss was tough to stomach for Nebraska fans, but they can take a tiny bit of solace in the fact that the Huskers appear to be developing some quality depth on defense.
I’m glad Jacob tackled all the defensive positives because despite the feeling that a good defensive performance will get lost because of the result, I completely understand why it’s lost.
I did not think we’d get here so soon but we have to face the reality that Nebraska football is at a crossroads. We have seen teams just over the last couple of seasons stumble early and recover. USC, Oklahoma, Penn State have all stubbed their toes and bounced back to have very productive seasons. For an extra cup of positivity and perspective, James Franklin had the exact same record as Mike Riley (16-13) through 29 games. I’m not saying it will be easy to replicate what happened after that in Happy Valley but it has happened.
The big problem right now for Nebraska is there just isn’t anything you can feel great about with the team. The defense has played better yes and they are trending in the right direction. What is this football team good at? Until we get any closer to having an answer or answers to that question, they will keep struggling.
There is also something that’s hard to measure and it’s lacking with this football team and that’s mental toughness. The moment the Huskers threw that first pick-six yesterday, you knew they were in trouble because for whatever reason they do not have the label of a team that responds well to adversity. That’s not just a Riley problem either but he’s the man in charge of fixing that currently. Nebraska is in desperate need of a feel-good win but will they locate the consistency needed to get it next week at home against Rutgers?
Nebraska was 2-for-3 on third down in the first quarter against Oregon. Since, its converted six of its last 30 third down tries. I don’t really know what to say after that performance, but that seems like a good place to start. That’s inexcusable as an offense.
Nothing about the Huskers’ numbers on third down looked good against the Huskies. Ten times Nebraska faced a third-and-short, needing four yards or fewer to extend the drive and only four times did the Huskers convert. That’s unacceptable as an offense.
Only twice did Nebraska face a third down longer than 9 yards. The average line to gain was 5. Again, for emphasis, they converted just 31.6 percent of the time.
Quarterback Tanner Lee completed 4-of-13 passes on third down and was sacked twice. That’s not even getting into the horrendous line play the Huskers were forced to endure Saturday morning. That’s hard to overcome as an offense.
There were a lot of problems on Saturday – the running game was never able to really get clicking like it has at other times this season, they had five penalties on the day all at crucial times, they ran almost 30 more plays than the Huskies and averaged fewer yards per, they dominated time of possession and yet led for just 2:22 – but the third down numbers have to get better.
Offenses have to stay on the field to score points, especially this Nebraska offense. The Huskers are not built to strike fast. Only three times this season have they scored in fewer than five plays, and one of those was a touchdown drive that began at the NIU 2-yard-line by way of a fumbled punt.
If Nebraska can solve its third down woes – that means, for the most part, fixing whatever the problem is on the offensive line – it will go a long way to solving all of its other problems.
Maybe they’re pressing, maybe they’re just not clicking, maybe they’re just not as good as we all thought. Guard Jerald Foster said after the game this is just the non-conference schedule and their goals of a Big Ten title are still very much in play, which is technically true, but the Huskers have to do some soul searching after this one and figure out what’s going on before these problems trickle into the games that truly matter to them and the season becomes lost.
Even Rutgers is better on third down.