Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northern Illinois

Searching for growth

24 months after a historic loss, Nebraska finds itself in a remarkably similar position. And Saturday represents a chance to prove how much the program has grown — if at all.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northern Illinois rush defense

New coach Thomas Hammock prefers an aggressive, slanting run defense that seeks to shut down the middle of the field and create car crashes between offensive linemen and defenders that opponents struggle to navigate. It wouldn’t seem to be an ideal game for Husker “big back” Dedrick Mills, who seems to still be learning how to run when the holes are as big as a highway. NU's success is more likely to come on the edges with Maurice Washington and quarterback Adrian Martinez in the zone-read game. NIU has a seasoned and experienced — though not necessarily big — front seven, anchored by tackle Jack Heflin, who had six sacks as a sophomore last season. Linebackers Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh each finished with more than 100 tackles. NIU’s style is similar to Wyoming's in 2016. The Huskies’ allowed fewer than three yards per carry in 2018. Nebraska faces tough sledding.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northern Illinois pass defense

Scott Frost expressed reasonable concern about the inability of receivers not named JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson to get open. They should have more chances this week, as NIU’s gambling defense leaves opportunities for big passes, especially at the second level behind biting linebackers. Northern Illinois is susceptible to play-action and misdirection, a weakness Utah used to its advantage in a 35-17 win over the Huskies. NU should have more quick throws available, so watch for screens to counter that aggression. If Martinez is sharp in his decision making, he’ll take advantage and hit big passes, preferably to a wider variety of receivers.

Northern Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

NIU ran for 85 yards (including sacks) in its 2017 win over the Huskers. Nebraska’s front seven could do that again Saturday. The Huskers rank 12th nationally with 2.12 yards allowed per carry, and Northern Illinois struggled to get a run game going against Utah with 67 yards. NIU has one of the MAC’s best running backs in Tre Harbison, but he needs a little room to operate, and NU has done a good job eliminating rush lanes between the tackles. The Huskers have been a little leaky on power outside zones, but NIU doesn’t have the O-line to pull those off.

Northern Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Nebraska’s secondary busted in a big way against Colorado, but it happened in the fourth quarter against the best receiving corps NU will likely face west of Columbus, Ohio. NIU does have a pretty good No. 1 receiver — former NU commit Spencer Tears, who had a 74-yard touchdown against Utah — and graduate transfer Ross Bowers started one full season at quarterback for California. Bowers has been sacked seven times this season. So long as Nebraska keeps rush-lane discipline, it should give Bowers fits. Look for the Huskers’ secondary to grab an interception or two.

Special teams

NU’s kicking game is an abject mess. Barret Pickering remains injured, Isaac Armstrong wasn’t close on his 48-yard attempt in overtime last week and Dylan Jorgensen — Pickering’s original backup — is out of pads and apparently injured, too. Kickoffs are being handled by William Przystup, who needs work after kicking straight to a CU returner last week. Armstrong is a bright spot at punter. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, NIU’s special teams efficiency is slightly ahead of Nebraska’s. With the kicking concerns, that seems believable.

Intangibles

You’d think this would be in Nebraska’s favor given the night kickoff and motivation to avenge the 2017 loss. But the mass changes in NU’s program since that game — including an entire coaching staff — distance the pain of that experience. The blame for it fell solely on Mike Riley. This team should be wary of what Northern Illinois can do, but NIU, featuring plenty of players who were on the 2017 team, will be jazzed to take another crack at Big Red. Husker football rarely has an advantage in intangibles — and won’t until it breaks free of inconsistency.

Key matchup: Adrian Martinez and the O-line vs. NIU's front seven

NIU’s offense is fairly punchless — its ceiling of points is probably 14 to 17. So its defense has to get aggressive, take chances, try to create turnovers and harass Martinez, who has shown a propensity for turnovers. Nebraska’s offensive line has been leaky, too. But if it holds up and Martinez keeps his poise, big plays will be available. It’s up to NU’s offense to not self-destruct — the way Tanner Lee and that O-line did in 2017.

Our take

Nebraska is a two-touchdown favorite, and while that may be how Saturday unfolds, it’s easy to see a close game for at least a half and perhaps much longer. Even when NU's offense is explosive — and it has been at times — it didn’t seem to be hitting on every cylinder against defenses that aren’t as aggressive or good as Northern Illinois'. Even if the Blackshirts hold up their end — and that seems likely — the Huskers have to score points, and that may be a struggle based on what we’ve seen. NIU won two years ago because it scored two defensive touchdowns. Because that's such an anomaly, Nebraska should escape the upset in 2019. But this win likely won’t be easy. It doesn’t seem like much will be this season on offense.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 24, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 16

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Game notes

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