Empty Husks: Defensive Excellence And Special Teams Madness

Adrian Martinez holding off defender (photo: Emily Haney/Journal Star)

At long last, Nebraska fans received the game they’ve been expecting since August 31st. It was a fun, fast-paced game against Northern Illinois, filled with aggressive defensive play and crazy special teams mishaps. The Huskers routed the Huskies 44-8 and looked strong in all three phases of the game. 

Pulling Out All The Stops

Nebraska’s defense shined Saturday night. As they learned last week, it doesn’t matter if you play a great 3 quarters when you give up 24 points in the last one. They took that to heart this week and played a full 60 minutes. As a team, they racked up 10 TFLs, 4 QB hurries, and a pair of sacks. They didn’t allow NIU to enter the endzone once and forced 3-and-outs on 6/14 drives. They recovered a fumble and picked off Husky quarterback Ross Bowers. In what may have been the most impressive defensive showing of the night, Nebraska held a goal line stand from their own 1. DT Darrion Daniels boasted proudly after the game that NIU chose to throw on 4th down, because they knew they wouldn’t run it in. You can’t ask for a much better performance than that.

Kicking Themselves

On their second drive of the night, Northern Illinois faced a 4th and 9 on their own side of the field. NIU’s punter, Matt Ference, didn’t even get a chance to swing his leg before linebacker Isaiah Stalbird charged him, swatting the ball right out of the air. Nebraska tight end Austin Allen scooped up the loose ball but was run down from behind before he could put more points on the board.

The most entertaining part of Saturday night’s game was undoubtedly the various gaffes on special teams. Each team blocked two kicks, and Bowers hit three excellent quick-kicks. The first quick-kick pinned Nebraska at their own two, and NIU’s defense forced a safety on the very next play. The Huskies also came up just short on a risky fake punt early in the game. 

Nebraska defenders stop fake punt attempt (photo: Francis Gardler/Journal Star)

After racking up 15 penalties in the first two weeks, Nebraska was charged with just 1 in Week 3. They technically committed 3 on the night, but 2 were declined, leaving only an unsportsmanlike conduct late in the game. 

Efficient And Decisive

The offense took a huge step forward, finally showing signs of being the high-powered, up-tempo offense we all expected. Four different players scored a rushing touchdown, Cal transfer Kanawai Noa finally found the ball and the endzone, and Nebraska racked up over 500 yards of total offense. In the first two weeks, quarterback Adrian Martinez relied heavily on JD Spielman and Maurice Washington, with Wan’Dale Robinson seeing a few targets. Martinez opened things up this week, targeting 6 different players over the course of the evening.

On the ground, running back Dedrick Mills finally looked like the explosive play maker we saw at Georgia Tech two years ago. He ran for 116 on 11 carries against a defense that had not allowed a 100 yard rusher in 17 consecutive games. The Huskies also hadn’t allowed more than 100 total rushing yards in 8/16 games. Nebraska ran for 238.

The coaches finally got a chance to see what they have in some of their younger players, as they subbed the second team offense in for one of the last drives of the game. It was refreshing to see some promising young talent, albeit against a tired defense.

Backup QB Noah Vedral dives across goal line (photo: Francis Gardler/Journal Star)

There’s Work Left To Do

Despite all around solid play against a tough opponent, there are still some big issues facing the Huskers as they enter league play. 

On multiple occasions, Nebraska’s defense was beaten over the top by NIU’s receivers. Bowers didn’t capitalize on any of those opportunities, but those are mistakes you can’t make against quarterbacks like Nate Stanley and Justin Fields.

Nebraska’s kicking woes are well documented this season, and they tested their depth toward the end of the game. Lane McCallum, a walk-on safety transfer from Air Force, kicked the final three extra points. Isaac Armstrong made his first field goal of the night, then saw his next two attempts blocked. Nebraska added a walk-on from the Club Soccer team this week, bringing the total number of kickers on the roster to 6. Nebraska still faces at least half a dozen games this season that may be decided by their kicker.

Lane McCallum kicks XP (photo: Francis Gardler/Journal Star)

Finally, the offensive line is still easily the weakest unit on the team. Play calling and better reads by Mills improved offensive production significantly, but the interior line is still struggling. This will be something to watch when Ohio State comes to town in a couple of weeks. The Buckeye defense is elite and they have one of the best pass rushers in the country in Chase Young. 

The offense also left points on the board Saturday. They settled for field goal attempts three times in the first half, but made just one. Credit to the NIU defense for forcing those tries, they played hard all night. At the same time, red zone offense was often a struggle for Nebraska last year. If the Huskers want to win close games, then they need to learn how to finish drives.

We’re On To Illinois

Nebraska heads to Champaign next week to take on Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini. Illinois started hot against Akron to open the season, then struggled to beat UConn on the road in week two. They are now coming home off a loss to Eastern Michigan. Nebraska appears to be improving steadily, and the key to this game will be stopping running back Reggie Corbin on the ground. To date, the Huskers are allowing just 2.18 yards per carry, and they’ll need to keep that strong front up as B1G play begins.

Nebraska 42, Illinois 17

Christian is a co-host of Between The Numbers, a weekly podcast recapping the best college football news from around the country and offering smokin’ hot takes.

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