LINCOLN — Luke Gifford is like you, Husker fan. He attended high school about five 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 Mid-American Conference 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 are 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, are not OK.
When the normally silent athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, makes a rare appearance outside the locker room to say “we have to 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 NU lost, badly, in key areas. Lee threw two interceptions that were returned for 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 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 yards 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-9 at its own 21, Lee was hit by defensive end Drequan Brown as he threw. The ball fluttered and traveled right into the hands of 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 a number went into the sky even though NU trailed 14-0. The Huskers’ defense held up for more than three quarters against backup NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina, which gave the Huskers a chance to avert an upset.
They nearly did. In the third quarter, Lee scrambled for a 4-yard touchdown after Husker safety Marquel Dismuke recovered a muffed punt at the NIU 2. Drew Brown added a field goal to cut NIU’s lead to 14-10. Then Nebraska had its best drive of the day, a six-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 receiver Christian Blake for 47 yards right over the head of cornerback Eric Lee. It was NIU’s only play longer than 20 yards. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he hugged Lee later.
“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 possessions to 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 stationed underneath a post route being run by tight end 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 had 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 when Nebraska had a stand-still quarterback, looking for open receivers.
Left guard Jerald Foster, a part of both games, said the offense will “take initiative” to figure out its problems. 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 be 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, remain to be seen.
|Yards per carry||2.7||2.4|
Nebraska is 2-1 all-time against Northern Illinois.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
Nebraska has played 9 games on Sept. 16. See them all »