It was Northern Illinois’ biggest mistake Saturday.
Moments after a stirring 21-17 upset at Nebraska, the Huskies celebrated for a moment at midfield, then darted into the locker room. Huskies fans, almost lost in a crowd of 89,664, were hoping for a curtain call. Several minutes later, the players, amid lots of high-fives and “yeah, baby”s, returned to Memorial Stadium’s southwest corner for a team photo.
“We were so excited we ran off the field. By the time we got back out there (the fans) were all gone,” coach Rod Carey said. “It was probably my fault. Should have gone out there right away.”
Presumably all is forgiven after the Huskies’ eighth win against a Big 10 school, and sixth since 2013.
Jordan Huff ran for 105 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The critical statistics, though, were on the other side of the ball. Northern Illinois scored two defensive touchdowns, finished with nine tackles-for-loss, intercepted three passes and broke-up another six, and had three sacks of, and an additional seven hits on, Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee.
“Our results offensively speak for themselves,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “It was evident on the pressure on the quarterback…it started pretty early and did not change.”
Perhaps the biggest moment of the game was a stop of Nebraska on 4th-and-7 at the Huskies’ 33-yard line with 5:31 remaining. Defensive lineman Kyle Pugh got to Lee, whose wobbly pass was knocked down by defensive back Mycial Allen.
The Huskies (2-1) picked up two first downs on the next drive, but eventually punted into the end zone with 3:09 remaining. The drive went nowhere. Sutton Smith had a sack on third down and then Josh Corcoran intercepted Lee, essentially ending the game.
Exemplifying Carey’s mandate to “play as fast as you can” Smith had six tackles, four for a loss. Bobby Jones had a team-best 14 tackles, while Pugh added 11.
Northern Illinois’ defense had a once-in-a-lifetime first quarter, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Nebraska moved the ball well on its first drive until Shawun Lurry anticipated Lee’s pass and darted in front of the receiver. Once caught, it was all over as Lurry went 87 yards for the score.
“They ran a lot of bubble (screens) so something told me to jump in,” Lurry said.
Lurry shushed the crowd – Nebraska’s 356th consecutive sellout – as he crossed into the end zone, but the home fans vocal much of Saturday, first gasping, then booing.
Later in the first quarter, Nebraska was backed up after a punt when Lee was nearly sacked by defensive end Drequan Brown. Lee just managed to get the pass away, but regretted it as the rushed throw found Jawuan Johnson who returned it unabated for 25 yards and a score.
“Hats off to NIU. They’re a good football team and they took advantage of our mistakes,” Lee said.
Nebraska had the ball for 11:42 of the first quarter (78 percent of the time) but trailed, 14-0.
The Cornhuskers struggled offensively in the first half. They no doubt missed starting running back Tre Bryant, who was injured a week ago, but the biggest issue was the offensive line. The Huskies were able to generate a pass rush from every angle. Northern Illinois’ defensive line also pushed ahead on the first half’s final play – a 37-yard field goal attempt. William Lee tipped the kick which landed in the end zone, keeping the score 14-0.
Northern Illinois played mistake-free until a glaring blunder on special teams. Punt returner Jalen Embry touched a bouncing punt, and Nebraska recovered after a prolonged scramble at the Huskies’ 2-yard line. Lee scrambled for a four-yard touchdown two plays later. Lee scored again on a short run, two plays after a 36-yard completion on third down, with 11:14 remaining. The Huskies’ dormant offense came to life when it was most critical.
Northern Illinois had 20 yards in the second half prior to a 75-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. On the first play, Quarterback Daniel Santacaterina, starting for the second game in place of Ryan Graham, threw a laser down the sideline to Christian Blake for 47 yards. He’d thrown for 51 yards prior to that play.
“I had a ton of confidence in Santa. It was a close battle (for the starting quarterback position) and he’s stepped in and won two games,” Carey said.
Santacaterina, who had 77 of his 128 passing yards in the fourth quarter, added a 16-yard completion to Blake, and Huff scored from the 2 on the next play. That put Northern Illinois ahead for good with 8:52 remaining.
“I kept telling the defense ‘we’re going to get one,’ ” Santacaterina said.
Nebraska, which lost to a Mid-American Conference team for the first time, piled up 384 yards to Northern Illinois’ 213. It also held the ball for 36:34, enabling the Cornhuskers (1-2) to run 29 more plays than Northern Illinois.
Carey acknowledged that the descrepency tired his defense, but they’ll have time to recover.
“I had the schedule set to work (Sunday) but I’m going to give them the day off,” Carey said, breaking the news to the players during the postgame media conference.
“That’s almost as good as the W,” Santacaterina said.
• It is unclear if Northern Illinois has previously scored two defensive touchdowns in a game. The team’s media guide does not reference such an occurrence in the Huskies’ 116-season history, and after a search of previous box scores, the sports information staff could not locate a game in which the defense scored twice.
• Carey is now 4-1 against the Big 10. Northern Illinois became the first Mid-American Conference team to beat the Big 10 twice in a season in 2013, Carey’s first, doing so to Iowa and Purdue. The Huskies beat Northwestern in 2014 and lost to then-No. 1 Ohio State in 2015.
• What a difference 27 years makes. In Northern Illinois’ last trip to Nebraska, the Cornhuskers rolled up 549 yards in a 60-14 win Sept. 8, 1990.
• Carey said quarterback Ryan Graham hasn’t practiced since being injured two weeks ago against Boston College. His status remains unclear for the Huskies’ next game at San Diego State, Sept. 30.
“He’s got to get over the pain before he can move onto anything else, and he’s not done that,” Carey said.