Lesson learned: Huskers feeling good after starting fast, finishing strong against Northern Illinois

Nebraska's Maurice Washington is greeted by Jack Stoll and JD Spielman after scoring a first-quarter touchdown. Washington had a pair of scores in the Huskers' win.

LINCOLN — A line of men in red — a little fed up, a lot hungry, sensing a chance at blood — bolted toward one of the loneliest, most vulnerable positions on the football field.

The punter.

Nebraska special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt found the weakness during film preparation, NU coach Scott Frost said, and figured if he sent the Huskers’ punt block unit toward Northern Illinois’ Matt Ference, Nebraska just might get there and wreak some havoc.

“He let it rip, and it worked out,” Frost said of Dewitt.

The block worked twice. Both times, the first Husker there was Kearney High grad Isaiah Stalbird, whom Frost called one of the “poster boys” of NU’s walk-on program. Once, Ference didn’t even touch the ball he was so rattled. That play went down as a fumble scooped up by Husker tight end Austin Allen. Nebraska scored its first touchdown of the game on the next play, and perhaps the cleanest, most definitive rout of the Frost era commenced.

The Huskers whipped the Huskies 44-8. Nebraska didn’t allow a touchdown. Didn’t allow a sack. Didn’t allow any points off turnovers, either. NU committed just one penalty and had zero hangover from a 34-31 overtime loss to Colorado. In fact, Frost suggested, the opposite happened. The coach, his staff, and the team as a whole woke up.

Isaiah Stalbird

Nebraska's Isaiah Stalbird, right, blocks a punt by Northern Illinois' Matt Ference. NU coach Scott Frost called Stalbird of the “poster boys” of NU’s walk-on program.

Whatever happened at Colorado wasn’t the real Husker football team. Not for four quarters, anyway. Saturday night? That’s what it’s supposed to look like. Big plays all over the place. Energy on the sideline. A night home crowd buzzing because of it.

“Maybe I needed to get the lesson from outside and my assistant coaches last week,” Frost said. He didn’t refer to the CU loss directly. “We preach ‘desire to excel and no fear of failure’ all the time and if we want the players to be that way we need to be that way as coaches. And that means calling what we need to call, rolling the dice, letting them play, being aggressive. That’s the way I want our team to think.”

In front 89,593 at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska (2-1 overall) had its foot on the gas pedal from the start. Quarterback Adrian Martinez aggressively fired the ball downfield on a 41-yard pass to JD Spielman on NU’s opening drive to set up a field goal, and that deep throw began a trend of Martinez navigating traffic and eschewing safe throws — the little crossers to tight ends, for example — to push the envelope. He completed passes of 30, 27, 26 and 21 yards in the first half. The 21-yarder, the tiniest of pitch passes to Washington, accounted for the Huskers’ first touchdown. The 27-yarder, a looping rainbow to Kanawai Noa, supplied the Huskers’ final touchdown of the half.

In between those bookends, Washington ripped off a 60-yard touchdown — turning against the grain of the play and accelerating, like a race car, around all of Northern Illinois’ defense — and Dedrick Mills plowed in from 24 yards out.

“The offense wanted to prove something,” said Martinez, who threw for 257 yards, ran for another 44, and accounted for three total touchdowns. Martinez repeatedly referred to NU’s offense being in “the right mindset,” constantly attacking, making plays work and spreading the ball around to eight different receivers.

Nebraska’s four touchdown drives in the first half lasted an average of 39 seconds and 3.5 plays. That’s the tastiest recipe for Frost’s offense: Big plays at lightning speed with the trips to the red zone happening on the go. Occasionally, it bakes a few bad muffins — Washington took a safety when Frost called for a swing pass out of his own end zone — but when a batch came out right, Husker fans gobbled it up.

They roared even more when the Blackshirts, as part of a stout performance in 85-degree heat and high humidity bowed up for a fourth quarter goal-line stand, denying the Huskies (1-2) four times inside the eight and twice from the NU 1. On fourth down, Northern Illinois was wary to run right at the Huskers’ front, so quarterback Ross Bowers tried a quick rollout pass instead. NU walk-on safety Eli Sullivan poked the ball away, one of 10 pass breakups in the game for Nebraska.

“They could have run the ball on that play, but they chose to throw it,” said defensive end Carlos Davis, who had six tackles and 1½ sacks. “That’s respect for our defense.”

For the game, Nebraska’s defense faced 81 plays — 16 more than NU’s offense ran — and gave up just 4.3 yards per play. NIU finished just 5 for 20 in third-down conversions and 2 for 6 on fourth down. Through three quarters at CU, NU’s defensive work didn’t look so different. But the Huskers avoided on Saturday the fourth quarter collapse it suffered last week. Yes, the altitude was kinder. The heat and humidity was not.

“Last week, that wasn’t enough,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “Tonight, we put four (quarters) together and we got this win. Now we know the right way, now we know what we’ve got to do for this week. Finish!”

This is Nebraska football still emerging from the fog of back-to-back 4-8 seasons, so worries linger. Nebraska had two field goals and an extra point blocked; Frost turned to fourth-string kicker and safety Lane McCallum, who delivered a few extra points in the second half. The extent of injuries to starters Cam Taylor-Britt and Brenden Jaimes are unknown, but if their injuries linger and either misses time, NU will be even thinner at already-thin positions.

But, for a night, Nebraska had a fast start and a true finish. NU seized control, kept control and shifted into cruise control — subbing in the Nos. 2 and 3 units — by the back half of the fourth quarter. It only looked like that once at Memorial Stadium last season, and Northern Illinois, the team that beat the Huskers in 2017, is better than Bethune-Cookman.

It left Frost conceding his team might, well, be pretty good.

“It was a lot closer to a clean game,” Frost said.