Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northern Illinois

Risks and rewards

Why? Why do they play football? Who is their motivation? How do they push through the grind for a morning kickoff? Family. Hope for the future. Faith in what football means. And, more to the point, out of love.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northern Illinois rush defense

The Huskers’ run game has been pretty sturdy so far — 4.99 yards per carry, including 5.71 yards per carry on first down — so long as Tre Bryant is in the game. Bryant has accounted for 299 of the Huskers’ 334 yards so far. Will he be good to go for Saturday? If not, the burden falls to Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo. Through two games, NIU is giving up just 2.19 yards per carry. That’s top 20 nationally but includes a game against Eastern Illinois. Nebraska’s size and skill personnel will be the Huskies’ biggest challenge thus far, so look for NIU to take a few chances with run stunts and blitzes. Look for Nebraska to try and hit a big jet sweep or two; Northern Illinois’ defense may be ripe for it.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northern Illinois pass defense

If Nebraska can establish the run and stay in control of the game, the Huskers should get some chances at big pass plays, either on the “RPO” slant play to receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El or a deep route to Stanley Morgan. NU needs to find a consistent No. 3 receiver between JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey. A second receiving tight end behind Tyler Hoppes wouldn’t hurt, either. NIU gave up 191 yards passing to offense-challenged Boston College before dominating Eastern Illinois. The Huskies get after the quarterback pretty good, led by pass rusher/linebacker Sutton Smith. Nebraska has to protect better than it did in the loss to Oregon. Look for redshirt freshman Matt Farniok to get his second straight start at right tackle.

Northern Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Huskies run a spread, no-huddle, read-option offense, but the current quarterback, Daniel Santacaterina, is more of a thrower than injured starter Ryan Graham. So NIU will have to scheme it up and grind it out. Nebraska’s run defense, anchored by a better-than-average run-stopping defensive line, should be up for the challenge. Running backs Marcus Jones and Marcus Childers are both smaller, heavy runners that Nebraska has to be mindful to wrap up. NIU will try to pop a jet sweep or two.

Northern Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

If one listens between the lyrics of Bob Diaco’s Tuesday press conference, Nebraska’s secondary is still working through growing pains that come with three new starters at cornerback. Coupled with safety Joshua Kalu’s hamstring injury, NU’s secondary will be protected from deep passes and thus tested pretty frequently with short passes — both in bubble screens and quick curl and stick routes in between linebackers and safeties. Santacaterina is a better passer than Graham, and receivers Chad Beebe, D.J. Brown and Spencer Tears form a good trio.

Special teams

Nebraska kicker Drew Brown has been excellent on kickoffs — solid on field goals, too — while punter Caleb Lightbourn had one of the best games of his career at Oregon. Nebraska is still trying to figure out the punt return system — De’Mornay Pierson-El turned down a great look at the end of the Oregon game. Northern Illinois freshman punter Matt Ference is off to a great start — a 41.0-yard average — but NIU kicker Christian Hagan has missed 3 of 6 field goal attempts this season.

Intangibles

It’s been awhile since NIU was a Big Ten giant-killer. The last Power Five team the Huskies beat was Northwestern in 2014. NIU’s defenses have slowly declined since that year, and, in 2017, the offense appears to be the weakness headed into Memorial Stadium. NU hasn’t lost in Lincoln since the 2015 season. Nebraska expects to play well after a sloppy start at Oregon. The Huskers’ second half at Eugene can be a building block.

Key matchup: Daniel Santacaterina vs. Nebraska’s secondary

NIU’s starter has thrown fewer than 100 career passes. That doesn’t bode well for him, but the Huskers have been pretty friendly to opposing quarterbacks stretching back to the last part of the 2016 season. If Santacaterina finds an early rhythm and puts together a couple first-half touchdown drives, NIU’s defense may hold up for four quarters. If the Huskies have to punt a lot, Nebraska’s offense will wear down the smaller foe.

Our take

NIU is a similar version of the Arkansas State team that made Nebraska sweat, but the Huskies perhaps have fewer playmakers. Nebraska has to rattle Santacaterina — a sack or two might be nice — and get better on third down after a 2-for-14 nightmare at Oregon. It won’t be easy. NU’s depth and excellence at the skill positions are down a bit right now. But, if Nebraska can avoid the turnover bug, it should pull out a win here. NIU has a chance, though, by shortening the game on offense and taking chances on defense.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 30, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 17

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Game notes

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