NIU falls to Nebraska, loses second straight game

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LINCOLN, NE – SEPTEMBER 14: Running back Dedrick Mills #26 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers drags cornerback Jalen McKie #23 of the Northern Illinois Huskies in the end zone for a touchdown in the first half at Memorial Stadium on September 14, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska used a balanced offensive attack and explosive plays on offense, while the ‘Huskers defense kept the Northern Illinois University offense out of the end zone to earn a 44-8 victory Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. 

With the loss to its second consecutive Power 5 opponent, NIU falls to 1-2 heading into an open date next week, while Nebraska improved to 2-1.

“This game is on me, completely,” said NIU head coach Thomas Hammock.  “I take full responsibility for the way we played. It wasn’t good enough.  We played a good Nebraska team and they capitalized on some things we knew going in.  We knew they had guys on their team that can be dynamic and explosive in space. We will respond and have a great chance next week to improve and get ourselves better.”

Nebraska gained 525 yards, 238 on the ground and 287 through the air as quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Noah Vedral combined to complete 19-of-32 passes.  The ‘Huskers averaged 8.1 yards per play, despite NIU owning a significant advantage in time of possession, 37:58 to 22:02.

The Huskies gained 350 yards on 81 plays but were unable to get into the end zone despite twice advancing inside the Nebraska 10-yard line in the second half.  On its first drive of the second half, NIU drove to the ‘Huskers nine-yard line on a 12-play, 66-yard jaunt highlighted by Jordan Nettles’ 22-yard rush and a Ross Bowers to Daniel Crawford 28-yard pass. But a sack on second and goal forced the Huskies into a John Richardson 27-yard field goal, his second of the game. 

The field goal proved to be NIU’s last score of the night. Late in the third quarter, after Nebraska extended its lead to 37-8 on a 10-yard run by Martinez, the Huskies began a drive from their 40. Bowers completed six straight passes to five different receivers, including 16 and 15-yard catches by Cole Tucker, to put NIU at the Nebraska eight.  Spencer Tears ran for six yards to the two. After two Tre Harbison runs netted just one yard, Bowers’ pass to Crawford was knocked away on fourth down to end the Huskies’ best threat.

Bowers finished the game 25-of-44 for 248 yards while 12 different Huskies caught passes with Crawford (5 for 71) and Tucker (5 for 50) leading the way. Jordan Cole led NIU on defense with nine tackles, including three for loss, while Jalen McKie had a pair of pass break-ups to add to his two blocked kicks and Antonio Jones-Davis had five solo stops, one for loss and a blocked kick.

Nebraska led 30-5 at halftime after a wacky first half that saw punts fumbled and blocked, field goals and PATs blocked, a Huskie safety and the Huskers taking advantage of explosive plays to build an insurmountable lead.   

Nebraska started the scoring on its first drive, going 58 yards in eight plays to the NIU 19. From there, Isaac Armstrong connected on a 36-yard field goal.  After a pair of incompletions to start the drive, Martinez connected on passes of 41 and 17 yards to set up the three-pointer.

Jack Heflin forced a fumble that was recovered by Marshe Terry to stop a Nebraska drive at the NIU 16, but the Huskies could not take advantage and on the ensuing punt attempt, punter Matt Ference did not make contact with the ball in the face of a rush and Nebraska recovered the fumble on the NIU 21-yard line.

One play later, Martinez pushed a pitch forward to Maurice Washington who took it in for the score and a 10-0 Nebraska lead.

Nebraska took over after a rush on the fake punt by Ference fell short. They drove to the NIU 20, where Antonio Jones-Davis blocked Armstrong’s field goal attempt and Devin Haney returned it to the Huskie 49-yard line. 

The ‘Huskers pushed the lead to 16-0 in the second quarter on a 60-yard touchdown run by Washington. McKie blocked the extra point.

NIU got on the board on its next possession as Bowers completed passes to Tears, Crawford and Tyrice Richie before the drive stalled at the Nebraska 27-yard line. Richardson’s 45-yard field goal was good, making the score 16-3 Nebraska with 7:48 left in the half.

The Huskies’ momentum was short-lived as an onside kick attempt went out of bounds and Nebraska started its next drive at the 50-yard line. On third-and-10, Martinez hit Mike Williams on a 26-yard pass to the 24 and Dedrick Mills picked up 24 of his 116 yards on the night on the ensuing play for the touchdown. With the PAT, Nebraska led 23-3.

The Huskie defense continued to make plays.  After Nebraska blocked Ference’s next punt to take over at the NIU 14-yard line, the Cornhuskers lost a yard and were forced to try a 32-yard field goal. That attempt was blocked by McKie for NIU’s third blocked kick of the night.

NIU drove from its 15 to the 50 with Bowers once again making use of the tight ends. On fourth and six, Bowers lined up in shotgun formation and executed a perfect quick kick punt that was downed at the four-yard line.  One play later, Cole tackled Washington in the end zone to record NIU’s first safety since the 2011 Eastern Michigan game.

With Nebraska’s lead cut to 23-5, NIU went three-and-out after the free kick and Bowers punted again on fourth-and-one. From its 13 with 44 seconds left in the half, Nebraska drove 87 yards in five plays and scored on a 27-yard pass from Martinez to Kanawai Noa for a 30-5 halftime lead.

“I saw our guys continue to fight,” Hammock said. “We’ve got to continue to keep working to get better. We had some young guys in there, especially on special teams, and we knew that.  We tried to give ourselves the best possible chance.” 

NIU played without injured starters Kyle Pugh and Quintin Wynne on defense and were also missing defensive tackle Ben LeRoy due to injury.

The Huskies have an open week on Sept. 21 before returning to action at Vanderbilt September 28 in Nashville. Game time for that contest will be announced Monday.

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