LINCOLN — Luke Gifford is like you, Husker fan. He attended high school three miles from Memorial Stadium. He grew up bleeding red. The Nebraska linebacker plays for the ‘N’ on the helmet. He was one of the last and most forceful players to speak after Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois.
“There is a sense of urgency, and the standard here has not changed,” Gifford said. “Losing is not OK.”
Especially not for coach Mike Riley, losing to a MAC team, in the third year and 29th game of his tenure.
Fans quietly emptying the stadium, their disappointed murmurs lost in a gusting north wind, is not OK. Two NIU pick sixes is not OK. Running for fewer than 100 yards — for the fourth time in eight games — is not OK. A Husker cornerback’s personal foul, which allowed a MAC team to kneel out a win, is not OK. An offense whose players admit they were pressing after a mere 7-0 deficit is not OK.
When offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s assessment of quarterback Tanner Lee starts with “I think he’d be OK if he wasn’t getting hit as much,” Lee, and the offensive line protecting him, is not OK.
When the normally-silent Athletic Director, Shawn Eichorst, makes a rare appearance outside the locker room to say “we have win games,” he knows, like Riley does, things are not OK.
“This will sound like an understatement,” Riley said in his opening statement “but we are just really, bitterly disappointed.”
The Huskers (1-2) outgained the Huskies (2-1) by 171 yards, ran 29 more plays and possessed the ball for 13 more minutes. And yet it lost, badly, in key areas. Lee threw two interceptions that were returned for NIU touchdowns in the first quarter. The offense converted just 6 of 19 third downs. The line gave up three sacks and seven more pressures. The Huskers’ 2.36 yards-per-carry average meant Lee had to sling it for 47 times. He completed 25 to NU and three to NIU.
“We are not playing good enough on offense right now,” Riley said.
Riley thought the Huskers might, too. Nebraska won the coin toss and, for a change, Riley wanted the ball to start.
NU briskly drove 65 in six plays to the NIU 10 before Lee threw the first of two pick sixes. The play was a quick bubble screen to receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, who was in the slot. NIU cornerback Shawun Lurry read the play and broke for the ball. Husker wideout Stanley Morgan — who’s supposed to block Lurry — didn’t reach him and Lurry had an easy 87-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I don’t know how in the world you know that’s coming because that is a run-pass option play,” Riley said.
Well, Lurry had a good hunch.
“We had five days to watch film on them,” Lurry said. “They run a lot of bubbles, so something just told me to jump it, and I just jumped it. Results happen.”
Said Langsdorf: “We have to block the corner there.”
So NIU led 7-0 without taking an offensive snap. And Riley said he noticed, after that, his offense was trying too hard. Lee, who repeatedly threw the ball into coverage, agreed.
“We knew we could move the ball, and we wanted to just hurry up and do it and start scoring,” Lee said. “And I think we were pressing a little bit, making mistakes, doing uncharacteristic things we pride ourselves in not doing.”
Such as throwing a second pick six near the end of the first quarter. Lee’s second interception was triggered, in part, by back-to-back offensive line penalties that negated big passing plays. Once NU reached third-and-nine at its own 21, Lee was hit by NIU defensive end Drequan Brown as he threw. The ball fluttered and traveled right into the hands of Husky linebacker Jawuan Johnson, who high-stepped into the end zone for a 25-yard score.
Many of the 89,664 fans held onto their red balloons — let go after the first touchdown — until halftime, when several went into the sky even though NU trailed 14-0. The Huskers’ defense held up against backup NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina for more than three quarters, which gave Nebraska a chance to avert an upset.
NU nearly did. In the third quarter, Lee scrambled for a four-yard touchdown after Husker safety Marquel Dismuke recovered a muffed punt at the NIU 2. Kicker Drew Brown added a field goal to cut NIU’s lead to 14-10, then Nebraska had its best drive of the day, a 6-play, 63-yard touchdown march that included a 36-yard pass from Lee to slot receiver JD Spielman on third down.
With 11:14 left in the game, Nebraska led 17-14 and NIU had 20 total yards in the second half to that point.
Until Santacaterina hit Husky receiver Christian Blake for 47 yards right over the head of Husker corner Eric Lee. It was NIU’s only play longer than 20 yards. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he hugged Lee after the play.
“We probably could say right now that the only thing that they could do at that point consistently was to chuck one down there, and we gave them that opportunity,” Riley said.
Five plays after the big pass, Northern Illinois running back Jordan Huff (16 carries, 105 yards) scored from the 2.
Nebraska would have two drives to take retake the lead. The first ended with a turnover on downs at the NIU 33. The second ended when Lee threw an interception right to defensive end Josh Corcoran, who was sitting underneath a post route being run by tight Tyler Hoppes. The Huskies were eventually able to run out the clock thanks to a personal foul penalty on sophomore corner Lamar Jackson.
NU players left the field quietly. Injured right tackle David Knevel had his arm draped over Matt Farniok, who started in his absence; Farniok, like the rest of NU’s line, struggled at times against NIU’s undersized-but-aggressive linemen and linebackers.
Riley, dressed in a black pullover on a cooler-than-expected day, didn’t waste time hustling out to chat with the press. Eichorst didn’t get down in time to see Riley’s chat.
“I’ve said, and I won’t back down on this, I like this team,” Riley said. “I like their work ethic, I enjoy working with them. I think I’d be making it up if I could say I sensed a performance like this coming up.”
But Nebraska’s offense has had performances like these spanning two seasons. NU ran the ball for 85 yards Saturday, and the 2.36 yards per carry is fourth-lowest since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Third-lowest came in the Music City Bowl against Tennessee, another game where Nebraska had a standstill quarterback, looking for open receivers.
Left guard Jerald Foster, a part of both games, said the offense with “take initiative” to figure out its problems on offense. Riley said the team has to “prove more about who we are as a team.” Eichorst said he hopes fans “hang in there” with Riley, but acknowledged “everybody’s gotta take it up a notch.”
Gifford, the Lincoln Southeast grad who had eight tackles and a half-sack, isn’t exactly part of Nebraska’s biggest problems. Coaches and teammates agreed he’s been one of the bright spots in a tough season. But Gifford sees things turning up for the team. Losing is not OK. The Huskers, he thinks, just might better than OK.
“It makes you sick,” he said. “You go in that locker room afterwards and it sucks. No one likes losing, that’s for sure. So we are going to just keep working. We still have a lot of things ahead of us.”
Just what those things are, at 1-2, remains to be seen.
Loss spoils a good game from defense
The Nebraska defense gave up just seven points against Northern Illinois. In most ways, the Blackshirts played well. Which put coaches and players in an odd spot after the game: How do you react after a game when your entire unit played well, but the team still lost in an upset?
“We lost the football game,” senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow. It doesn’t matter how we played like. We had a chance with the lead to leave the field and we just lost the game at the end of the day.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was proud of his unit. He was happy with how they played for all four quarters, which included two scoreless offensive quarters in the first half.
“They were in the positions they were supposed to be in, players are going to give up a play here and there and that’s part of the course of the game, and they really, really played hard,” Diaco said. “And they did what they were supposed to do for the most part, and executed our defense appropriately and never got exacerbated and anxious, just played one play at a time, didn’t look at the scoreboard, and I’m really proud of that.”
On the flip side, though, Diaco wasn’t pleased with the end result, even adding there was “mourning” in the locker room after the 21-17 loss.
“Whatever the score is, we have to find a way to have one more point than the other team.”
“We had a lead and we had an opportunity to leave the field and we didn’t make it happen,” Stoltenberg said. “So we got a lot of work to do still.”
Punt returns adventurous
Nebraska’s defense forced eight Northern Illinois punts. The Huskers’ punt return unit made an adventure out of several of them.
De’Mornay Pierson-El returned five punts for just 13 yards. One punt that he didn’t catch — he misjudged the trajectory — rolled to the NU 1. He caught another punt at the 7. He caught another punt at his own 26 and lost five yards on the return. A holding penalty negated another return.
“You saw some De’Mornay, and then the other big part of it was some decision-making for sure, that whether it’s not catching a short ball, or not catching a medium ball, … or catching one too deep,” Riley said. “We seem to have choices, and the decisions that are made … probably hurt us also field-position-wise.”
For the season, Nebraska has six returns for 14 yards.
Dismuke recovery leads to TD
The biggest play of Husker safety Marquel Dismuke’s career came in the third quarter when he recovered a muffed punt at the Northern Illinois 2. NIU returner Jalen Embry misjudged the bounce of a punt that hit his hand and sent both teams on a big scramble.
“Once I saw he muffed it, it put another tenth in me to go and recover the ball,” Dismuke said. “I had grabbed it first, but I missed it, so I kicked toward where only I could get it, so I grabbed it again.”
Nebraska scored two plays later on a scramble from quarterback Tanner Lee.
Langsdorf not pass-happy
For the second straight game, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf did not want to throw the ball as much as NU ended up throwing.
Langsdorf, the Huskers’ primary play-caller, called 47 pass plays against Northern Illinois. And just like at Oregon a week ago, when the Huskers threw the ball 41 times, that wasn’t the plan coming into the game.
And just like at Oregon, the high volume of throws were because of an ineffective run game.
“I think our inconsistency up there, up front early, we were getting 1-yard, 2-yard gains and trying to get back to a manageable third down and early in the game penalties were killers,” Langsdorf said. “We got into some bad, bad situations.”
Nebraska was 6 for 19 on third down. Some of those long downs led to Lee’s three interceptions.
“They can kinda run whatever they want,” Langsdorf said of those second and third long plays. “They can give you a lot of different looks up front, they can stand up and roam around and they have two yards behind them to cover. You get into those situations, it’s not pretty.”
Huskies ‘go fast’ to fluster NU
Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith said Huskies coaches were stressing the importance of playing fast throughout their preparations for Nebraska.
“What we did this week was really try to prepare to go fast,” Smith said. “The faster we go, good things are going to happen. That’s what our coaches were emphasizing this week, just look at your keys and just play as fast as you can.”
Because Nebraska has been focused on more of a passing game this season, Smith said NIU coaches wanted defenders to do everything they could to get to Lee.
“They’re a pro-style offense,” Smith said. “The quarterback is going to sit, so we just emphasized play as fast as you can.”
That philosophy paid off with three sacks, including two by Smith that resulted in a loss of 16 total yards. Smith also had four tackles for loss totaling 23 yards to lead NIU’s nine total TFLs.
The Huskies also had six pass break-ups, one blocked kick and seven quarterback hurries.
O-line endures difficult outing
Whatever kind of day the Nebraska offensive line prepared for, this wasn’t it.
Center Cole Conrad left the game briefly with an injury in the second quarter, giving way to Michael Decker at the position. Redshirt freshman Matt Farniok endured a shaky second start at right tackle.
Most of all, Lee absorbed three sacks and took a flurry of other hits as the Huskies consistently pursued him in the backfield.
“Nothing really specific that I would say really got us,” left guard Jerald Foster said. “We just didn’t have the day we wanted.”
The run blocking wasn’t much better, with Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo netting just 2.4 yards per rush. The average broke down to 3.1 yards per rush before half and 1.6 after the break.
“I would say we had hiccups on both (run and pass blocking),” Foster said. “There is a lot that we are going to look at and we are going to improve, definitely. We are going to figure out our problems. We are going to take initiative in finding our solutions. So both run and pass, we have problems, we are going to figure it out.”