In the last seven days, Nebraska might have established the tone for this season: disappointing and frustrating.
Saturday the Huskers were victims of a MAC attack. Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference stunned the 89,664 that had sold out Memorial Stadium for the 356th consecutive game. The Huskies staged a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown drive to erase Nebraska’s only lead of the game and post a 21-17 upset.
Combined with last week’s 42-35 loss at Oregon, the Huskers have trailed at halftime in their last two games by the total score of 56-14. Against the Ducks, Nebraska rallied within seven points. Against Northern Illinois, the Huskers scored 17 consecutive points to take a three-point lead with 11:14 remaining, but their defense couldn’t keep an anemic NIU offense from staging a game-winning drive.
With Big Ten play starting next week with a visit from bottom-feeder Rutgers, the Huskers and their fans envisioned starting 3-1 heading into October and a challenging league schedule. Now, the Huskers face a must-win to get back to .500.
“We’re bitterly disappointed in losing,” said Nebraska coach Mike Riley, whose contract was extended by one year earlier in the week. “We could never recover from giving them two touchdowns early. We’ve been inconsistent at best. We have to better identifying quality. It’s just really, really disappointing.”
At halftime — as Nebraska left the field trailing thanks to two pick-sixes of quarterback Tanner Lee — there was a smattering of boos from the red sea. One alum expressed his displeasure on social media.
That was one of the worst first half of a football game I have ever seen by an offense. When will the leader step up and make a play.
— Tommie Frazier (@TouchdownTommie) September 16, 2017
The Huskers have teased but not pleased. That inconsistency Riley mentioned was evident for all to see against Northern Illinois.
On one first half possession, a holding penalty wiped out one big pass completion while an illegal block in the back negated a gain on a screen pass that led to a 1st and 24. The Huskers, who were just 2 of 14 on third-down conversions last week, were 6 of 19 against NIU – but twice they dropped passes that would have produced first downs. With an average weight advantage of 42 pounds on the offensive line, Nebraska gained 85 yards rushing on 36 attempts.
Lee, the transfer from Tulane, was anointed as the starter after spring practice. In the last two games, he has attempted 88 passes and suffered seven interceptions – one almost every 12 attempts. On the Huskers’ first (and promising) drive, they had 2nd and 3 at the NIU 10.
Northern Illinois corner back Shawun Lurry came off his coverage of Stanley Morgan Jr. and perfectly read a bubble screen pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El. He stepped in for the interception and an 87-yard pick-six.
“They had a perfect defense called there, blitzed the corner and jumped the bubble screen,” Lee said. “That was a tough way to start. After that I think we were pressing a little bit. We couldn’t get out of the hole.”
Three series later, Lee was hit while throwing and the Huskies’ Jawuan Johnson returned the flutter ball 25 yards for a 14-0 lead.
The visitors missed a 39-yard field goal and muffed a punt that Nebraska recovered at the 2-yard line to help the Huskers score their first TD. Nebraska was also fortunate that a replay review overturned a Lee fumble that was returned deep into Husker territory.
Fortunate or unfortunate, Nebraska took its first lead with 11:14 remaining on Lee’s 1-yard quarterback sneak. Entering the fourth quarter, Northern Illinois had gained 116 yards on 36 offensive plays. A scoring drive against the Blackshirts to regain the lead appeared unlikely.
But on the first offensive play after Nebraska’s touchdown, NIU’s Daniel Santacaterina connected with Christian Blake, who got a step on Nebraska corner back Eric Lee Jr., for 47 yards. That led to Jeff Huff’s 2-yard run that put the Huskies up by four with 8:52 remaining.
Nebraska had two more possessions, but the first ended on downs at the NIU 33 and the last one on Lee’s third interception. In three starts, Lee is completing 52.5 percent of his passes with five TDs and seven interceptions. Expect the Nebraska media to ask if redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien deserves a chance to run the offense.
What a bad, bad loss for Mike Riley. Sad state of affairs for Nebraska football.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) September 16, 2017
Lee was sacked three times and pressured or walloped a dozen more times. The Huskers’ offensive line couldn’t handle the Huskies’ quickness. Northern Illinois’ linebackers and secondary not only tackled well but provided sticky pass coverage.
“Our offensive results… we play as a unit,” Riley said “It was obvious, the pressure on the quarterback. We didn’t run the ball consistently. The passing game was sporadic because the protection was sporadic. I felt like we could be that team that could run the ball, throw the ball, play-action pass. We’re so far from that.
“I was wrong. I was wrong.”