Following losses to Colorado and Utah, respectively, both the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northern Illinois Huskies are glad to be done with the Pac-12 and would love to make a statement this week. Neither team has much to crow about concerning their wins. The Huskers had a plodding 35-21 affair with South Alabama, while Northern Illinois bested FCS foe Illinois State 24-10.
The last time these teams met in 2017, the Huskies stunned yet another sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd with a 21-17 upset. That loss catapulted Nebraska towards a losing season that eventually resulted in Mike Riley's firing. The series dates back to 1989, with the Big Red picking up two wins over the MAC West school (48-17 and 60-14).
Former Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock has taken over a Huskies squad projected to finish third in its division by Athlon Sports after winning the conference in 2018. Northern Illinois also features new offensive and defensive coordinators; Eric Widsness handles the former, while Derrick Jackson and Robert Wimberly share duties regarding the latter.
Northern Illinois at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -14
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Ross Bowers leads the charge at quarterback and doesn’t provide anywhere near the running threat the Huskers saw with their first two opponents. He had a decent day against a 69th-ranked Utah passing defense (20-of-29, 220 yards, TD, INT). This is a concern for the Big Red as their efforts through eight quarters have resulted in a national pass defense ranking of 114th.
Tre Harbison and Jordan Nettles average a combined 20.5 carries per game on the ground, but neither has found the end zone. If Nebraska has trouble defending the passing game again, the likely culprits will be Huskies receivers Tyrice Richie and Spencer Tears. Tears racked up 112 yards and a touchdown on five catches versus No. 11 Utah. The Huskers can’t afford to let him and Bowers get in sync again.
On defense, Nebraska has to deal with the loss of Deontai Williams at safety, which resulted in Cam Taylor-Britt taking over. While only a sophomore, he’s shown a great deal of promise early on. This week’s depth chart had an interesting twist, with outside linebacker Jojo Domann now being listed as a “nickel.” Expect him to have more of a hybrid linebacker/safety role moving forward.
The remainder of the Blackshirts defense is unchanged, though do watch Nebraska’s linebacker situation. Will Honas had a largely positive showing versus Colorado, although he overpursued on a number of occasions. The top two outside linebackers on either side are largely interchangeable. They were tested by Colorado. Look for the Huskies to do the same.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Quarterback Adrian Martinez and running back Maurice Washington are still at the top of their respective positions, while JD Spielman remains the best wide receiver the Huskers have.
Scott Frost needs to find some depth behind those players, and this is one of perhaps two games left before the schedule gets dicey. Dedrick Mills will still get his opportunities to spell Washington, but he’s not an every-down back, nor is he the bruiser the Big Red are looking for.
We might finally see the emergence of Rahmir Johnson as a third option. He would at least give opponents something different to scheme for.
At wide receiver, Wan’Dale Robinson remains a top target. The Huskers also have plenty of options such as Kanawai Noa, Jaevon McQuitty and Mike Williams. Up front, Nebraska absolutely must address the inside run game. That may require shuffling offensive linemen around, but they need answers soon.
The Huskers must contend with a forceful NIU linebacker duo in Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh. Cornerback Jalen McKie has been a constant pest for opponents through two games, getting into the backfield and defending the pass.
Northern Illinois presents a mid-tier defense, but enough of a challenge that Nebraska can’t afford start-and-stop drives as they’ve experienced thus far.
The Huskers shouldn’t lose this game, nor should it be close. However, they’ve been unable to get a proper tempo on offense or play a complete game on either side of the ball. Northern Illinois provides an opportunity to correct these woes, but like South Alabama and especially Colorado, the Huskies are not going to go quietly into that good night.
As mentioned, expect the Huskies to attack the Blackshirt back seven early and often. Large gaps have frequently been present providing excellent options for top wide receivers and tight ends to move the chains.
Much like South Alabama, talent should carry Nebraska to victory. Also like the Huskers’ game against the Jaguars, unless the Big Red can finally keep their foot on the gas, the outcome is going to be closer than it really should be.