In a game that Nebraska finally controlled basically from start to finish, it sure was still filled with with some wacky special teams moments, busts on both sides of the ball and plenty of learning opportunities. But, you know, it was pretty nice to not have to worry about having a stroke as the game wound down this time.
You also have to love the fact that the Huskers did what they couldn’t do many times before — and that’s get the lead and keep it until the clock showed all zeroes. I know some fans may say that “well, it was just Northern Illinois …” Yeah, that might’ve been true in the past, but that’s a talented team that has no problem playing bigger competition. Not only did the Huskies beat the Huskers two years ago, but last week they gave a really good Utah team a tough game. The Utes have one of the best running backs in the nation, and he didn’t have much room to run at all against the Huskies.
And, let’s face it, Nebraska’s margin of error is still so small that every team that remains on the schedule can beat the Huskers. Going into conference play at 3-0 would’ve been fantastic, but maybe blowing the game against Colorado could end up being a blessing in disguise for a team that needs to continue to improve its mental toughness.
I guess we’ll find out as soon as next week. Nebraska faces Illinois, and even though it “should” be a win, let’s not forget how awful road games have treated the Big Red. Winning on the road, especially in conference play, is definitely all about attitude and an “all-business” mentality.
On to the bullets!
— I think we should start by giving kudos to Norfolk native Lane McCallum for entering Saturday’s game and confidently kicking three extra points. The timing, height and rhythm all seemed on par for what you want there. The transfer defensive back from Air Force probably never thought he’d have kicking duties again after high school (go NHS Panthers!), but he definitely stepped up in a big way for the team. The way it’s going, that might not be the last time he trots out there as the Huskers’ kicker.
— As much as McCallum was a bright spot on special teams, what the heck was with the blocked kicks in this game? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. You can make an argument that Isaac Armstrong was a little slow as far as the timing in kicking his field goals/extra points, but the offensive line was atrocious. You simply cannot let that much penetration happen up the middle. And if the defense wasn’t busting through inside, then NIU had a guy screaming off the corner to block the kick as well. It’s just hard to imagine how it all just seemed to fall apart in this one game, because kick protection has been decent thus far. You can be sure that future opponents are definitely going to lock into this issue for the near future. Nebraska has to get that fixed.
— And just as opponents are going to look at our field goal protection teams, how about coach Jovan Dewitt finding a weakness in NIU’s punt team? That was incredible. The Huskers had a clear and successful plan to rush the punter and blocked two punts. Haven’t seen that kind of confidence in a punt scheme in a long time. Bruce Read anyone?
But these two instances also highlight the struggles of Husker football. When one area is on fire and playing at a high clip, well, the other is literally on fire.
— Let’s all hope the injuries to Brendan Jaimes and Cam Taylor-Britt are not serious. The Blackshirts are thin at safety, which is why Taylor-Britt was there in the first place. He’s an integral part of the defense since he plays cornerback, safety and nickel.
He’s one the Huskers can’t lose. When he was taken to the locker room, that looked liked a serious shoulder injury. He came back to the sideline later on with just an ice bag wrapped around his shoulder, leading me to think it was just a bruise.
Broc Bando came in to spell Jaimes after his leg injury. Offensive tackle is another extremely thin position for Nebraska, which simply can’t afford injuries there, either. There are bodies on the roster, but they’re not ready for action yet. Bando did a decent job late in the game for basically his first real outing.
— One turnover and one penalty. Rejoice!
— In this offense, it took Devine Ozigbo about three or four games before he started really busting long runs and gashing defenses. On par with that, Dedrick Mills had his best game yet as a Husker. Admittedly, he’s still a major work in progress as far as having just enough patience to wait for the lanes to develop, but with 11 rushes for 116 yards and a touchdown, that was a stellar performance.
— Wan’Dale Robinson is still underused, in my opinion, but the ball distribution was far better against NIU than any game so far. And how about Kanawai Noa’s catch and toe-tap in the end zone? Amazing play. But sometimes good things happen when you open things up offensively.
— Rahmir Johnson is going to be really good. He’s got that special kind of burst as a running back that you just can’t teach. Good to him get a few plays in.
— Now let’s talk about this offensive line. Oh, boy, that was a very poor performance. Give some credit to NIU for employing a defense that’s full of motion, slants and guys standing up in and out of gaps. It’s a hard defense to prepare for. But with that said, Nebraska’s line was giving up a ridiculous amount of penetration into the backfield. And if it wasn’t a lineman letting a man slip through on failed short yardage, it was a tight end split out wide getting steamrolled en route to the safety. Just simply too many times Nebraska lost the one-on-one battles, and far too many unaccounted for defenders. Have to shore it up. Fast.
— The Blackshirts really came to play against the Huskies. As the counter to the boom-or-bust offense, Nebraska’s defense stifled NIU to only 74 rushing yards and eight points. Now, were there some missed wide open receivers? Yes, definitely. And so wide open that they might’ve scored with a better throw. But they didn’t, and it’s just more busts that can be put on film to get right for the next week. But you saw a lot of subbing, intensity, big hits and better tackling in all four quarters.
— JoJo Domann continues his great play in the hybrid nickel spot. His instincts are just stellar and the defense feeds off of his hustle. And speaking of hustle, is walk-on Eli Sullivan getting enough credit for his low-key excellent play in the secondary so far this season? The guy is a physics major, and his smarts are showing on the field, too.
— No individual area codes were on the Huskers’ helmets for this game. That was coach Scott Frost’s call, but he didn’t say why. Also, how about those all-black shoes? That style choice harkens back to the Nebraska teams of old. But it’s still a pretty sharp look. I know all of the former players loved that choice on Saturday.