LINCOLN — One trip through the postgame tunnel wasn’t enough Saturday for Northern Illinois, not after a win like that.
Huskies players and coaches left their locker room and raced to the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium to further celebrate their 21-17 upset victory over Nebraska with family and friends.
The moment eventually turned into a photo op, Stanley Cup-style. Every NIU player, still wearing his jersey or not, piled into the corner of the end zone and hammed it up for the cameras.
Middle linebacker Kyle Pugh, who finished with 11 total tackles, one pass break-up and two quarterback hurries, said the Huskies’ immediate answer to Nebraska’s 17-point run will make celebrating the signature victory so sweet.
“We executed the plays,” Pugh said. “We got punched and it was a dogfight, but we responded and we fought back. I’m proud of everybody. I’m proud of my coaches. They put us in a great position. I just want to go celebrate with my teammates.”
Every Husky knows head coach Rod Carey’s rule: Celebrate for 24 hours. Then it’s time to move on and keep working.
That’s why they took the extra time with family and friends before returning to the South Stadium locker room and the music pounding from a big set of speakers.
“I don’t think they took it up another notch. They’ve been playing this way all year,” Carey said. “I think this is them. We’re not done, because in football you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
“So we’re going to take our 24 hours, and we’re going to get back to work. We deserve these 24 hours because we’ve been busting our butts.”
From the first series it looked like this might be a special day for the Huskies. On the seventh play of Nebraska’s opening drive, senior cornerback Shawun Lurry jumped in front of a pass intended for wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown.
The Huskers were having little trouble moving the ball on the first six plays, picking up three first downs and reaching NIU’s 10-yard line. He didn’t realize it at that moment, but Lurry’s play changed the tenor of the game.
“We had a great game plan for this week, watching a lot of film on them,” Lurry said. “They ran a lot of bubbles, so something just told me to jump it, and I just jumped it. Results happen.”
Junior linebacker Jawuan Johnson got a pick-six of his own later in the first quarter when he nabbed another Lee pass and returned it 25 yards for a 14-0 lead that stood until midway through the third quarter.
That’s when Nebraska found its offensive groove for a stretch, a rhythm NIU couldn’t match until the Huskers had taken a 17-14 lead.
“I was really happy with the way the offense responded when they took the lead,” Carey said. “We were pretty anemic offensively. We just weren’t ourselves. I think that kind of snapped us out a little bit.
“We went down and made the plays we were capable of making, got the lead back, and that gives our defense some juice, who had been out there all day. They come up with some big stops and win the game for us.”
Most teams don’t win when they run 29 fewer plays from scrimmage — 83 to 54. Time of possession also was heavily in Nebraska’s favor, 36:34 to 23:26.
Those numbers didn’t matter to the Huskies when they took possession after Nebraska moved in front by three. Carey decided to let quarterback Daniel Santacaterina take a shot downfield, and the move paid off with a 47-yard strike to Christian Blake.
“We had been talking about that and finally we just pulled the trigger,” Carey said. “We should have probably done it about four series (earlier). But hey, we did it, we caught it, and here we go.”
five plays later the Huskies reached the Nebraska end zone on a 2-yard run by Jordan Huff.
“Seniors have to play like seniors if you’re going to have a good football team,” Carey said. “Jordan Huff’s a senior. He’s played a lot of football here. So I was proud of the effort he gave today.”
Santacaterina said that pass made the rest of the drive much simpler to execute.
“It got me into a rhythm for sure,” he said. “We definitely needed that offensively to get us going. We didn’t flinch. We were ready to go.
“We knew we were just fine, we were in the game, we were going to win. We were very confident, and we went and did that.”
While these players will remember this win for decades to come — ending Nebraska’s eight-game home winning streak and toppling a Big Ten team — Carey said there’s too much to do right now.
“In the grand scheme of things it’s one game,” he said. “We’ve been here before in a situation like this. We’re 2-1. That’s all it means. No one has accomplished anything.
“Are we going to enjoy this for 24 hours? You bet. But we’re 2-1.”
How would you grade Nebraska's performance against Northern Illinois?
Nebraska's defense allowed just one touchdown, but the Huskers nonetheless fell 21-17 to Northern Illinois. How would you grade NU's overall performance?