The Daily Chronicle is looking back at the top 10 games of the last decade of NIU football. Today's entry, NIU vs. Nebraska in 2017, is No. 7
Date: Sept. 16, 2017
Score: NIU 21, Nebraska 17
Why it was selected: The Huskie defense scored twice early, before losing the lead in the fourth quarter, only to respond with a game-winning drive to win at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium.
In a flash, Northern Illinois went from nearly letting one of the biggest nonconference victories in program history slip through their fingers, to creating one last defensive play on a day with many big-time defensive moments in the Huskies’ 21-17 win over Nebraska on Sept. 26, 2017, at Memorial Stadium.
NIU made fourth-down stops on consecutive drives to clinch the victory.
“They had a chance to go and win, but then all of the sudden [Josh] Corcoran had the pick, and we had the ball, and we were kneeing it, and that was it,” NIU offensive lineman Luke Shively said. “It went from, ‘Man we might not get this one, to holy [expletive] we got it.’ It was kind of just a quick turnaround.”
Bobby Jones IV, who had a game-high 14 tackles, calls the Boneyard win – a win at a Power 5 conference school – one of the best memories.
“I watch it all of the time,” Jones said. “It’s definitely top three moments of my NIU career, especially me being a senior that year and getting my first Boneyard victory.”
Cornerback Shawun Lurry’s highlight reel interception and return, ending with him running into the end zone while putting his finger to his lips to shush the Cornhusker fans, is the lasting image from that game. The touchdown put the Huskies up, 7-0, early.
“There’s a lot of times that teams like Northern, other [Mid-American Conference] schools, or what have you, Group of 5 schools (the five conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision not in the Power 5), will win a game like that and there’s not really a whole lot that you can pin it on,” Shively said. “It just kinda turned out in their favor. But then when you see a play like that that sticks to that game, it makes you think a little different about that game.”
Neither Shively nor former NIU quarterback Ryan Graham knew quite whether Lurry was supposed to jump the route, but were glad he did.
“In practice, the dude would just pick things off, that he would bait you into throws you thought you had,” Graham said. “He was just one of the best corners I had ever played against.”
Lurry, who lined up over the outside receiver on the interception, read Cornhuskers quarterback Tanner Lee’s eyes, put his foot in the ground and accelerated to a pass thrown to the inside receiver running a bubble route.
“I don’t know for sure, I’m not a defensive guy obviously, but after watching a lot of football throughout my life, I’m not 100-percent positive that he is ever in any circumstance supposed to do that, what he did,” Shively said. “Which now it doesn’t really matter, because it worked out. He was just being a football player.”
Lurry’s celebration still brings a smile to Graham’s face.
“It was classic Shawun in the end zone doing the title finger wag to the fans,” Graham said. “That’s just exactly who he was. He loves football. He loves the guys. Every single teammate we had could speak for hours about Shawun and how hilarious he was.”
The game represented a breakout performance for defensive end Sutton Smith on the national stage. The redshirt sophomore wreaked havoc on the Nebraska offense, making four tackles for loss, two sacks and six tackles.
Jawuan Johnson’s pick-6, created by pressure on Lee from Smith and even more pressure from Drequan Brown, rushing from Lee’s left, had the Memorial Stadium crowd of 89,664 in near silence.
And while the Huskies did not score an offensive touchdown before the fourth quarter, Shively said he realized early on that NIU was well-positioned to have success against the Cornhuskers in the rabid environment of Lincoln.
“They were practicing their defense and when you have personnel that’s been built over years to run one defense and then you flip the complete defense from an even to an odd front (3-4), it changes the mentality of the guys,” Shively said. “Watching on film, it was less prevalent for us. By the time we got into the game … we realized they weren’t really comfortable in what they were doing, they were kind of unsure.”
The Huskies were more than sure of themselves.
Jordan Huff made plays with his feet and ran for 106 yards, while quarterback Daniel Santacaterina had to play the role of game-manager.
The Huskies missed chances in the first half to extend their lead – Omaha native Christian Hagan missed a 39-yard field goal, and Smith’s forced fumble on a heavy hit on Lee was overturned on replay review.
Even after that, the Huskies blocked a field goal to go into halftime leading, 14-0.
While the Huskers did take the lead with a second-half charge, going ahead 17-14 on a Lee quarterback sneak with 11:14 to go in the fourth quarter, the Huskies did not flinch.
Santacaterina unleashed a bomb down the sideline on the very next drive, completing a 47-yard pass to Christian Blake. Blake caught another pass on the drive and fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line, only to recover the ball. On the next play, Huff rumbled in to put the Huskies back on top, 21-17, with 8:52 left in the game.
The Huskies came up with a fourth-down stop, then grabbed several first downs from Huff and wide receiver Jauan Wesley on the next drive to whittle down the clock.
Smith’s sack and Corcoran’s interception on consecutive plays on Nebraska’s final drive sealed the Huskers’ fate.
“That game, the outcome,” Shively said, “the defense was really the star of the show in that game.”
No. 10 – NIU wins on the road at Toledo
No. 9 – NIU defeats EIU at home
Today – No. 7, NIU wins at Nebraska
Dec. 18 – No. 6
Dec. 21 – No. 5
Dec. 24 – No. 4
Dec. 28 – No. 3
Dec. 30 – No. 2
Dec. 31 – No. 1